LAGOS – In the 2017CAF Champions League and CAF Confederation Cup, Nigerian clubs failed to deliver right from the preliminary stage. Rangers International and Rivers United represented the country in the Champions League while Wikki Tourists and FCIfeanyiUbah flew the country’s flag in the second-tier CAF Confederation Cup.
Both Rangers and Rivers United dropped to the CAF Confederation Cup after they lost their second preliminary round matches against Zamalek of Egypt and Al-Merrikh of Sudan respectively.
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In the preliminary qualifiers for the group stage of the Confederation Cup, Zesco of Zamibia eliminated Rangers while Rivers United overcame Rayon Sport of Rwanda 2-0aggregate to make it into the group stage of the second tier competition.
Meanwhile, both Wikki Tourists and IfeanyiUbah failed in their bid to make it into the group stage of the same CAF Confederation Cup after failing in the first preliminary round.
Wikki fell to Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces FC (RSLAF FC) of Sierra Leone while IfeanyiUbah were undone via penalty kick by Al-Masry of Egypt.
In the group stage of the CAF Confederation Cup, Rivers United finished last in a pool that had Club Africain of Tunisia, FUS Rabat of Morocco and KCCA of Uganda, meaning that at the end of the 2017 group stage of both the CAF Champions League and the CAF Confederation Cup, no Nigerian club was left standing, a development that affected the country’s points haul and subsequent reduction of continental slots for clubs.
In the 2018 edition of the continental competitions, the duo of Plateau United and MFM represented the country but after progressing to the final preliminary round at the expense of Eding Sport of Cameroon and AS Real Bamako of Mali respectively, they failed the pre-group stage test.
Billed to face stern tests from North African oppositions, Plateau United were edged by Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia while MC Algiers undone MFM, thus Nigeria did not have any team in the group stage of that year’s CAF Champions League.
They, however, dropped into the second tier CAF Confederation Cup where another hurdle before a group stage loomed. In the Confederation Cup and while Enyimba, the team that finished third in the Nigerian topflight in 2017, were drawn bye, Akwa United progressed to the final qualifying rounds at the expense of Banjul Hawks of The Gambia.
In the final playoff round, Al-Hilal of Sudan eliminated Akwa United through away goals rule, even as the duo of MFM and Plateau United, once again suffered devastating blow as they were dumped out in the second-tier competition by Djoliba of Mali and USM Algiers of Algeria respectively.
So, Enyimba remained the only Nigerian club to make it into the group stage of a continental competition after they defeated Energie FC of Benin Republic in the first round and then Bidvest Wits of South Africa in the final playoff.
The 2017 and2018 continental disaster led to Nigeria dropping below the required 12th position on the ranking list of countries that would present two countries each for the CAF Champions League and the CAF Confederation Cup.
Thus, in 2019, Rangers and Lobi Stars represented Nigeria in the Champions League and Confederation Cup respectively and even though both clubs failed to go beyond the group stage, finishing third in their respective categories, the country was the better for it as their performances, coupled with Enyimba’s good run in the previous season in the CAF Confederation Cup, marked the reinstatement of Nigeria’s four slots for the two competitions.
The beneficiaries of the reinstatement were the reigning Nigerian champions, Enyimba International, their runners up, Kano Pillars, third-placed Rangers International and Federation Cup runners up, Niger Tornadoes.
Meanwhile, just after the preliminary rounds of the two continental competitions, both Pillars and Tornadoes have taken a bow, leaving Nigeria’s hopes squarely laid on the shoulders of the two Oriental brothers, Enyimba and Rangers.
Pillars promised so much but delivered virtually nothing, exiting the stage even before the main contest started. Paired against Asante Kotoko of Ghana in the preliminary round, the Sai Masu Gida nearly capitulated at home in the first leg after going two goals down. It took resilience and a little bit of luck for them to come back stronger in the second half to win the match 3-2.
They needed to avoid defeat in Kumasi to stand any chance of progression but the Porcupine Warriors defeated tem 2-0 before a packed Baba Yara Stadium in Kumasi to send the former Nigerian champions home quite early in the contest.
Pillars’ elimination obviously surprised a lot of Nigerians because commentators saw them as suitable candidates for the premier club competition because of the resilience they showed in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season-end playoff.
It was only Pillars that defeated the eventual champions, Enyimba, in the round-robbing NPFL playoff, thus underlining their strength; hence not a few Nigerians believed that they would at least make it into the group stage.
For Niger Tornadoes, their elimination in the CAF Confederation Cup certainly did not come to many as a shock. The Ikon Allah Boys were relegated and even making it to the final of the Federation Cup was a huge surprise to so many Nigerians, who understood how unmotivated the players of the Minna-base side were, which analysts believed led to their relegation from the topflight.
So after failing at home to Santoba FC of Guinea 1-2, stakeholders knew that the second leg in Conakry was going to be a mountain too high for the Minna side to climb. But they showed the true Nigerian spirit, forcing their hosts to a 3-3 scoreline, thus eliminated from the CAF Confederation Cup on a 5-4 aggregate scoreline.
But the development, as analysts have posited, might have taking Nigeria to those inglorious years as analysed above. The elimination of both Pillars and Tornadoes has also thrust the task of rescuing the country from points slide on Enyimba and Rangers, who are each competing in the Champions League and Confederation Cup respectively.
Enyimba will be squaring up against the Sudanese giants who eliminated Akwa United in the playoff of the 2018 CAF Confederation Cup, Al-Hilal. Certainly, Al-Hilal are no strange foes to the ‘Peoples Elephants’ as long as the continental competition is concerned.
Al-Hilal eliminated Rayon Sports of Rwanda on away goal in the previous round while Enyimba defeated Rahimo of Burkina Faso 5-1 aggregate.
Al-Hilal, just like Enyimba, are the most successful club in Sudan with 27 league titles and seven Sudan Cup triumphs. They have been runners up twice in the CAF Champions League in 1987 and 1992 and have won Arab Cup Winners’ Cup once in 2001.
Of course, Enyimba are not lacking in experience at this level after two triumphs in the CAF Champions League, achieved back-to-back in 2003 and 2004. They have been eight-time Nigerian champions and have won CAF Super Cup twice in 2004 and2005.
On the head-to-head, Enyimba and Al-Hilal have met twice and it was in 2011. It was at the group stage of that year’s CAF Champions’ League. Enyimba defeated them 2-1 in Omdurman and they drew 2-2 in Aba. So it is believed that being the only club remaining for Nigeria in the Champions League, the ‘Peoples Elephants’ would know the huge task before them.
This optimism was shared by Yinka Onaolapo, the club’s midfielder, while chatting with SATURDAY INDEPENDENT on what should be expected of the eighth time Nigerian champions.
“We have been there before and we know what is expected of us. We are not going to underrate them because they are equally a good side but we have our eyes firmly set for the group stage and they will not stop us,” he said.
Enyimba are not new to rescuing the country in such situation. After they broke the then 38-year-old CAF Champions League jinx and won the title for the country for the first time in 2003, Nigeria were gifted two slots in the 2004 edition. Thus, the defunct Julius Berger joined them to represent the country the following year.
But after the two legs in the preliminary round, the ‘Bridge Boys’ were defeated 3-2 aggregate by Burkina Faso side, ASFA Yennenga. The Burkina Faso side defeated Julius Berger 3-2 in Ouagadougou and played goalless with the Nigerians in Lagos, thus leaving the then reigning African champions, Enyimba, to fly Nigeria’s flag. They did not disappoint as they, once again, raced to the final and defeated Etoile du Sahel to successfully defend the title.
Commentators have unanimously believed that apart from other motivations, remaining as Nigeria’s CAF Champions League campaigners should lift the ‘Peoples Elephants’ to at least brush aside Al-Hilal and progress to at least the group stage.
Meanwhile, in the Confederation Cup and after being drawn bye, Rangers will enter into the fray with the consciousness that they are the country’s only hope in the second tier club competition. They will come up against modest Gabonese side, AS Pélican.
AS Pélican defeated AS Maniema Union of the Democratic Republic of Congo 4-1 via penalty kicks after a 2-2 score line could not separate both sides. They are a modest club with no record of achievements, even as analysts believe that the ‘Flying Antelopes’ may not sweat much to dispatch them on a good day.
But even at that, Rangers should be prepared for a harder task before the group stage as they will likely face a tough side that would have dropped from the CAF Champions League before dreaming of a place in the mini-league stage of the CAF Confederation Cup.
Speaking to SATURDAY INDEPENDENT, Norbert Okoli, Rangers media officer, promised that they were not leaving anything to chance as they hoped to go all the way in the competition, revealing that the Enugu State Government are solidly behind them.
“We are not leaving anything to chance and because of that, we are in close camping in Nanka, Anambra State. It is a close exercise that will afford the players all the time in this world to concentrate and perfect tactics.
“You know we are the only club now in the CAF Confederation Cup after Niger Tornadoes were eliminated so we are doing everything good to represent Nigeria well.
“We are heavily motivated by the Enugu State Government. The Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi-led state government has made available everything the Rangers management requires for us to do the nation proud,” he said.