Afcon 2023: West Brom extols Semi Ajayi's performance as Southampton wants Aribo to return with the trophy

Afcon 2023: West Brom extols Semi Ajayi's performance as Southampton wants Aribo to return with the trophy

Manager Russell Martin said everyone at Saints is proud of Joe Aribo for reaching the Africa Cup of Nations final and hopes Nigeria can lift the title this weekend.

Aribo's Super Eagles take on tournament hosts Cote d’Ivoire at the Alassane Ouattara Stadium on Sunday - and are hoping to claim their fourth African crown.

Aribo is one of two Southampton-signed players in Nigeria's squad, alongside loaned-out forward Paul Onuachu.

Both have primarily been used from the bench by coach José Peseiro, who has a wealth of quality options available to him.

Asked by the Daily Echo how proud he is of Aribo's achievement with Nigeria, Martin said: “We all are.

"We have all shared messages with Joe and we have watched. Big Paul (Onuachu) as well, he is one of the nicest guys I have ever met in football.

"I am pleased for Joe and I hope they can go all the way. He is enjoying himself.

"We miss him as a player and as a guy; he was in such a good place before he left and he’ll come back, hopefully, in a better place having won the final.

"We wish him all the best. I think it’s great for the club, I really do.

"It’s amazing to have a player representing us so well, not only the way he is on the pitch but the way he conducts himself off it as well.

"We are all rooting for him, and I know he is rooting for us. He has messaged after every game to say well done and I know the boys are in constant contact with him.

"I am really pleased and hopefully he can go on and win it.”

Should Aribo return with an Afcon winner's medal, he will add a winning mentality to a Southampton side chasing promotion back to the Premier League.

"I think it would help us," Martin continued. "Winning any silverware in your career, especially going away with your country and winning something like that, would be an incredible achievement.

"You can imagine the boost that would give you as a football player and as a person. His energy is amazing anyway.

"Even when he wasn’t in the team, he is infectious and a great team-mate, smiling all the time, so good for the young players. He’ll come back even better, I’m sure.”

West Brom manager Carlos Corberan also spoke of his pride at Semi Ajayi's "extraordinary" Afcon exploits with Nigeria and seeing the club represented in a major international final.

Ajayi has been a feature of every Nigeria game of the tournament thus far and is expected to start against hosts Cote d’Ivoire in the showpiece final on Sunday night.

Corberan said of his centre back: "He is one of the most important players for Nigeria. He has been extraordinary from a performance perspective.

“I can only give you amazing words [about him]. Playing or not playing, he is the same person; playing or not playing, he always trains the same way; playing or not playing, he always shows the same character. He is someone who loves to play and that is something I value a lot.

“He was in our first XI when we were playing with a back five, and after that, he had an injury and so we changed shape. That’s why he didn’t get back in. I stayed with the players who were playing at a good level to give continuity. But in terms of his abilities, he has always had the possibilities to start games and has helped us from the bench many times.

“The fact Nigeria plays with a back five helps him as a player because I cannot imagine a better position for them than to play as a center-back in a three. Does that mean he can’t play in a four? No, because he did it for this club. But that is what you need to have success — exceptional football players who deserve to play but are on the bench."

Corberan was asked if Ajayi could return to the Hawthorns an even better player considering the level he has been performing at during the tournament. He added: "I think so. They indeed play a five, which is something we are not doing now, but the fact he is playing and getting confidence, I think so."