Eye-catching and physical, Nigeria’s Emmanuel Emenike will relish the challenge of replacing Asamoah Gyan at Al Ain

Ian Hawkey looks back through the career of Al Ain striker Emmanuel Emenike and explains what Arabian Gulf League fans can expect from the Nigeria international.

Emmanuel Emenike, right, has the task of filling the void left by Asamoah Gyan at Al Ain. Adem Altan / AFP
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It was two days before the biggest match of his career. Emmanuel Emenike evidently wanted to look the part. Enthroned on a chair in the middle of a function room of a Johannesburg hotel, he was wrapped in a large white sheet, being attended to by a barber. The new haircut would indeed look sharp in the photos of all the Nigeria players celebrating victory in the 2013 African Cup of Nations final.

Alas for Emenike, Al Ain’s eye-catching new recruit, a stubborn thigh injury would rule him out of Nigeria’s first Nations Cup triumph in 19 years, a heavy disappointment for the striker who had scored four goals to propel the “Super Eagles” to the final.

But the tournament represented a turning point in a career that had sometimes seemed unlikely to take off, an endorsement of Emenike’s several fine qualities and international pedigree.

He has come to the Emirates knowing he has a hard act to follow, replacing Asamoah Gyan as the spearhead of Al Ain’s attack. Emenike, 28, will bring a different set of skills – less of Gyan’s guile, perhaps, with his back to goal, but the same physical presence.

He is nearly 6 feet (1.83m) tall, and his powerful legs give him a good spring to reach headers and, above all, provide powerful acceleration.

The story goes that the young Emenike made the hour-and-a-half journey to training each day with his first club, Delta Force, on foot, for want of a bus fare. Like almost aspiring young West Africa footballers, he was dreaming of an opportunity abroad, though his first big break came from within Africa, and the South African club Mpumalanga Black Aces. He stayed there briefly and moved to FC Cape Town.

These were low-key destinations, and though Emenike made enough of an impression to attract interest from Europe, the next stop would be at a relative backwater.

Karabukspor had been outside the top flight of Turkish football for 11 years when he joined them. But Emenike, by now 22, and the club were a good fit. He scored 16 league goals in 28 matches to help push Karabukspor into the Super Lig, the top division.

There he found defences no better equipped to cope with his pace and his strength. When Galatasaray visited early in the season, Emenike had won a penalty within two minutes of kick-off. He scored in the big matches, against Fenerbahce and Besiktas, and by the end of a campaign in which he missed a significant portion with injuries he had 14 goals from 23 outings, and collected the Super Lig’s award for the best foreign player.

Emenike had received his first call-up for Nigeria that season, 2010/11, although his breakthrough with the national team would not be immediate. His scoring record until the 2013 Cup of Nations was ordinary, his selection as the centre-forward for that tournament criticised in some quarters of the Nigerian media. But the manager, Stephen Keshi, saw that a strategy based on speed and counter-attacking would suit Emenike, who has cited Keshi as a major influence on his career: “He is a super coach, who had faith in me even when I hadn’t shown much for the national team.”

By that stage he was a Spartak Moscow player, a move arranged rather suddenly. Emenike joined Fenerbahce from Karabukspor in the summer of 2011, but Fenerbahce’s involvement in match-fixing was being investigated at the time and the club’s punishments led to budget problems. Hence Emenike’s loan to Spartak and a two-year adventure in Russia that would include some strong cameo performances in European competitions and a good ratio of goals-per-game.

Once he returned to Fenerbahce, three years after first joining them, he made a good first impression, with three goals in his first four games. But by the end of last season, he had become less prolific, and the arrival at Fenerbahce of Robin van Persie, and several other new attacking players meant the club were ready to listen to enquiries.

Al Ain have taken Emenike on loan. He has big boots to fill. He may not become as prolific as Gyan, but he is unlikely to shy away from the challenge of replacing him.