Nigeria vs Ghana: Alexander Djiku on World Cup dream and being inspired by Arsenal's Invincibles

Ghana defender Alex Djiku says World Cup appearance would be "magical"; following a goalless draw in Kumasi on Friday, the two teams will battle it out at the Moshood Abiola National Stadium on Tuesday; the West African football rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana started over 70 years ago

Alexander Djiku of Ghana during Ghana vs Gabon- Africa Cup of Nations (Pic: Ulrik Pedersen/CSM via ZUMA Wire)
Image: Djiku's early memories of football included the street parties as France won the World Cup in 1998.

Sky Sports News reporter Paul Gilmour speaks at length to defender Alexander Djiku ahead of Ghana's crunch match against West African rivals Nigeria, discussing life on and off the pitch.

It's Strasbourg against Paris St Germain in Ligue 1 and a bruising battle is emerging between one of the world's best strikers and Strasbourg's two impressive centre backs.

In a relentless opening 20 minutes both Alex Djiku and Mohamed Simakan are shown yellow cards for fouls on Kylian Mbappe before an opportunity to draw breath arrives with a break in play.

"He looked at me and said, 'I'm not going to finish the match.' I answered, 'We'll be two,' recalls Djiku with a laugh.

"Mbappe is the toughest opponent I've faced. His is speed is unstoppable."

PSG's Kylian Mbappe, center, tries to get the ball past Strasbourg's Alexander Djiku, left (pic: AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Image: PSG's Kylian Mbappe, center, tries to get the ball past Strasbourg's Alexander Djiku

Tonight the 27-year-old will be in the Ghana team as they attempt to book their place at the Qatar World Cup.

A clean sheet in Kumasi has left the tie with Nigeria finely poised at 0-0 ahead of the return game.

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"There is nothing better in football than a World Cup," Djiku tells Sky Sports News from the training camp in Abuja.

"To experience it would just be magical. We do this job to experience magical moments."

'Van Djiku"

Inspired by the likes of Marcel Desailly, Paolo Maldini and "the elegance of Sol Campbell" Djiku's early memories of football included the street parties as France won the World Cup in 1998.

Born in Montpellier the man known as 'Van Djiku,' because he is valued in Strasbourg as much as Liverpool appreciate their Dutch centre half, is at a defining point in his career.

An offer from Rennes of £6.75m was rejected by Strasbourg, who valued their asset at closer to £12.5m.

It didn't help that Le Racing had already sold three defenders, so a departure seemed unlikely.

It didn't stop other clubs adding Djiku's name to a wanted list ahead of what could be another summer of transfer talk.

Villareal are keen having resigned themselves to losing Pau Torres while Sevilla are also watching carefully because they expect at least one of Jules Kounde or Diego Carlos to depart.

Premier League ambitions

English clubs have also shown interest in the past but have been concerned about the fact he is just shy of six foot tall.

Alexander Djiku of Ghana during Ghana vs Gabon- Africa Cup of Nations at Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium (Pic: Ulrik Pedersen/CSM via ZUMA Wire)

"I understand the reservations about my height, as the English game is a direct game, but size is only one component of winning a duel.

"There is also bodywork, timing, relaxation, and anticipation. Also, the taller you are, the less mobile and quick you are to deal with fast and technical players. I think that 1m 82cm is the right height for a modern central defender."

The stats in France this season back up his words. Only Sven Botman and Nayef Aguerd have won more ariel duels so his height would not put him off taking an opportunity in England.

"I've spoken a lot with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew and Thomas Partey. They have enjoyed the Premier League so much since they have been here. It's a spectacular league that gives you the opportunity to express yourself and it's often a very open game. It's one of the best leagues in the world and obviously this makes you want to try it one day.

Thomas Partey heads Arsenal in front against Leicester
Image: International teammate Thomas Partey competing for Arsenal against Leicester in the Premier League

"The stadiums, the intensity of the matches, the famous Boxing Day and then the passion of the fans in this country is just great. I think I'll feel very comfortable there."

Invincibles inspiration

An early love of one London team in particular also helped shape his connection to the Premier League.

"In France, we followed the French players of Arsenal with attention. They rocked our youth and every weekend we waited to see the 'Invincibles' on the pitch. It was beautiful to see Pires, Henry, Vieira and Wiltord play, led by Arsene Wenger.

"My brother and I admired this team. At the time they played at Highbury, a mythical stadium, where the fans were close to the players. That's the kind of football I love."

Defensive enforcer

In his spare time Djiku enjoys healthy cooking, playing chess and is particularly competitive at table tennis.

Off the pitch his teammates describe him as a calm and hard-working family man while praising his leadership, strength and self-belief on the field of play.

In 2021 he had made the second most interceptions in Europe's big five leagues at the halfway point of the season.

PSG's Angel Di Maria, left, challenge for the ball with Caen's Alexander Djiku in 2018 (pic: AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Image: PSG's Angel Di Maria, left, challenge for the ball with Caen's Alexander Djiku in 2018 (pic: AP Photo/Michel Euler)

"I admit that it is something I work on individually with a thorough analysis of my opponents before the games," he says.

"I have a fairly clean style of play in the restarts, I like to have the ball, and to be able to clear the game by finding the midfielders, or sometimes directly the strikers.

"Technically I'm comfortable with the ball at my feet, which is why my coaches also trust me in midfield, in the role of a recovering midfielder. Versatility in football today is a strength."

Partey key for Arsenal and Ghana

"His repeated injuries and mixed seasons with the Gunners did not help his confidence or his ability to impose himself. But it has toughened him up, he is a determined player with a mind of steel.

"It obviously helps to have a player like that in your team. He's going to get better and better as time goes on and he'll be a key player for Arsenal and Ghana."

Strasbourg's Alexander Djiku, right, jumps for a header with Marseille's Arkadiusz Milik (pic: AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
Image: Strasbourg's Alexander Djiku, right, jumps for a header with Marseille's Arkadiusz Milik (pic: AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Standing tall?

Djiku himself has had to toughen up after those setbacks around his height but also a difficult period when he suffered a nasty arm break when playing for Claude Makelele at Bastia.

"I had to stay away from the field for three months, it was not easy to live with, but it strengthened my mind.

"I must admit that I didn't have a classic career, because I was always criticised for my lack of height. I had to toughen up in that aspect too, so as not to give up my dream of becoming a professional football player. And I think I did well," he laughs.

Djiku will be standing tall if he can inspire his country to reach the pinnacle of his sport with victory this evening.

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