The tricky midfielder celebrated his return with a well-taken goal, in a performance that promised much for Royals and Super Eagles supporters
It was the day he truly became theirs. At the weekend, Ovie Ejaria made his first appearance for Reading since making his season-long loan permanent, and he marked the occasion in the best style possible.
To refer to it as a debut seems a little indulgent, but then again so is the languid grace with which the former Liverpool starlet plays. Ejaria is a player around whom there is quite a bit of excitement, not just among the club faithful, but all the way across the Mediterranean.
Far from fireworks from the off, his return in Royals red was initially muted.
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Before Saturday, Ejaria’s last taste of football had come in the 5-0 thumping of hapless Luton Town on the final day of last season, a full two months prior. It had also seemed uncertain, for parts of the necessarily brief off-season, whether Reading had the means to fulfil the £3.5 million obligation that had been agreed upon with Liverpool in the summer of 2019.
He, however, continued to train with Reading, but remained in purgatory until a fortnight ago when both parties reached a satisfactory conclusion. Unable to play any tune-ups, and under new management in former Under-20 World Cup-winning coach Veljko Paunovic, it is easy enough to understand Ejaria feeling his way into the game.
He got warmed up soon enough, however. By the time he seized upon Lucas Joao’s reverse pass and slotted home past David Marshall on the stroke of half-time, he was well into his groove, a zone which Championship defenders have come to dread.
Last season, no one completed more successful dribbles per game in the division than Ejaria’s 3.1, and unlike the much-acclaimed Said Benrahma who also managed to rank very high in lost possessions, his decision-making in possession was a lot more sensible (65% success rate to the Algerian’s 55%).
Too often, tricksters can be characterized by inefficiency, and so to combine flair with restraint, while retaining volume still, makes the 22-year-old quite special.
In some ways, it is a bit of a surprise that he did not attract greater interest higher up in the same way that Benrahma and Ebere Eze – now at Crystal Palace – have done over the summer. Another impressive campaign – and he is on his way on Saturday’s evidence – would almost certainly remedy that oversight.
As it happens, he attempted only two dribbles (both completed) at Pride Park, going off with what appeared to be a muscle strain after 68 minutes.
With 10 of 13 tackles won, and two tackles and interceptions apiece, it seemed inevitable that his body, shorn of match sharpness, would rebel at some point. “They are battle wounds,” said Paunovic afterward, allaying any apprehension. “He should be fine. We have to evaluate his situation but we don’t believe it’s a big thing.”
Reading fans will certainly hope so, as will supporters of the Nigeria national team. It is understood that Ejaria has now committed his international future to Nigeria having previously been a part of England youth set-up. That puts him very much in the frame for an invitation ahead of October’s friendlies against Ivory Coast and Tunisia in Austria on the 9th and 13th respectively.
Considering the unavailability of Joe Aribo, who has quickly become influential since earning his first cap in September 2019, Ejaria’s ability to carry the ball in the same way and also arrive in the opposing penalty area would be welcome.
However, perhaps his biggest asset is his sheer positional versatility.
Depending on the discretion of the coach, he could reprise his role on the left of midfield at club level to provide the Super Eagles with an added layer of guile between the lines against deeper opposition, against whom the pace of the likes of Samuel Chukwueze, Samuel Kalu and Moses Simon might be less threatening. He can also ably deputize for Alex Iwobi, who presently appears to be out of favour at Everton, as the team’s most attacking central midfielder.
In many ways, he provides a lot more solutions than Eze, a player for whom the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) have not hidden their admiration. While there has been a significant amount of “will he or won’t he?” coverage around his international loyalties (he recently withdrew from the England Under-21 squad for unclear reasons, sparking yet more speculation), it would be deeply ironic if Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr were to find his side’s needs sated by the lesser-fancied Ejaria instead.