Daily Champion (Lagos)

5 August 2007

Nigeria: Utaka On Track for Premiership Glory

Lagos — Super Eagles forward, John Utaka finally achieved his long standing dream of playing in the English Premier League by completing a move to Portsmouth for 7 million pounds.

Utaka who has spent five seasons in the French league was presented the chance at last to star in one of the world's famous and the Enugu-state born player is fortunate to be in the same club with Super Eagles teammate Nwankwo Kanu. There are also other Africans, such as Lomana LuaLua and Benjamin Mwaruwari with whom Utaka will fight for a starting place.

Before the move Utaka had been linked to clubs like West Ham, but those were mere speculations, which took the players nowhere near his favoured destination. Utaka will make his debut next weekend for Portsmouth when they play against newly promoted Derby County.

Portsmouth coach Harry Redknapp is looking forward to Utaka to repeat his successful runs with French side Rennes from where he joined Pompey.

Utaka began his soccer when he joined Rangers Football Club of Enugu in 1995 and five years later he left Nigeria and moved to Egypt in 1997 where he signed a four-year contract with Arab Contractors. He made an impression and after two seasons, was loaned to another Cairo club, Ismaili.

He then scored 17 goals and finished as the top scorer in the league making him the first black foreign player to win the award.

His achievement prompted interest from Egypt giants Al-Ahly and Zamalek but they could not succeed in their bid to sign the Nigerian.

Ismaili, knowing his abilities and potentials, bought off his remaining one year contract with Arab Contractors and Utaka played a significant role in helping them reach the final of the CAF Cup in 2000.

He also became the top goal scorer in the tournament.

Between 2000/01, Utaka traveled to Turkey for trials with Kocaelispor and his performance was impressive but with Ismaili hoping to retain the services of the 25-year-old, placed an outrageous transfer fee of $1m on him. The deal eventually never materialized.

At the end of the 2001 season, it was time for Utaka to look somewhere else. He moved to Qatar and joined Al-Sadd where he played until the end of the 2002 season.

During his time with the club, he helped them reach the semi-final of the Asian Cup Winners' Cup.

Blessed with dribbling skills, Utaka's game is also marked by his pace and can give defenders headache as he proves to be a threat in front of goal. He is able to play in all attacking positions; although he prefers to play behind the top forward.

Another era started in his career when he moved to France in 2002 and joined Ligue One side Lens in a reportedly $2m deal. When he arrived in Lens, he was seen as replacement for Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf who had just moved to the English Premiership.

Utaka made almost 100 appearances for the club between 2002 and 2005. During his first season, he scored 8 goals.

During the 2004/05 season, he scored 12 goals for the club making it his most productive season in France.

He joined Ligue one rivals Rennes in 2005 but then failed to make an early impact. He however, took advantage of the absence of striker Alexander Frei, who got injured, to make his breakthrough.

Utaka raised eyebrows in February 2006 when he scored two consecutive hat-tricks against his former club Lens and Lyon.

Such a remarkable achievement earned him the L'Equipe's player of the month award.

After five years in France, it was time for him to begin a new challenge.

Utaka is a key player in the Nigerian national team where he has made as many as seventeen appearances with six goals to his name. He made his full international debut in the 2002 African Nations Cup qualifier against Namibia in Windhoek.

He was favored to make the 2002 Nations Cup squad but could not due to logistic problems which prevented him from showing up in camp on time.

He was part of the Super Eagles' 2002 World Cup squad and also participated in nigeria's 2004 and 2006 African Nations Cup campaigns.

His goal against Cameroon during the 2004 Nations Cup ensured Nigeria a place in the quarter-finals of the tournament.

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