Ahead 2016 CAF Club Competitions: What hope for Enyimba, Warri Wolves, Nasarawa United and Akwa United?

By Muyiwa Akintunde on December 14, 2015

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Abia State Governor Okezie Ikpeazu lifted the 2014/15 Glo Premier League trophy at Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos on Sunday, November 15, 2015 on behalf of Enyimba FC, but the job had been completed a week earlier. At their Enyimba International Stadium, Aba fortress where only three teams – Akwa United, Enugu Rangers and Giwa FC – had previously avoided defeat in the just ended season, the People’s Elephant had earned the crucial one point over second-placed Warri Wolves the previous week to record their fourth draw of a glorious campaign. That single point did it! Enyimba established an unassailable lead to claim a record seventh Nigeria Premier League title. Their final match against Sunshine Stars in Lagos last Sunday became a formality even before it kicked off.

Enyimba deserved their glory. Apart from Warri Wolves, which won all but one of their 19 home matches, only five other teams – Giwa FC, Sunshine Stars, Heartland, Kano Pillars and Akwa United – won as many as 15 matches in front of their supporters. Enyimba also proved their worth on the road by grabbing all three points in four away matches – just like Nasarawa United and Wikki Tourists.

Enyimba deserved their first league title since 2010. When the 2014/15 season commenced on March 8, 2015, they recorded a barren result against Akwa United to the displeasure of their passionate fans. It was not until Matchday 3 that they finally picked maximum points – against visiting Bayelsa United – after playing 1-1 away to Lobi Stars the previous week. By Week 10, Enyimba had been lifted to No 3 on the log, then descended a step three weeks later, but never dropped out of the top four. When the opportunity came to displace previous leaders Sunshine Stars, who had trouble paying their players, Enyimba grabbed it will both hands to top the table on Matchday 24. From that moment – and with 14 rounds of matches to go – Enyimba did not look back.

Expectations are not misplaced that the People’s Elephant are better placed to return the CAF Champions League back to Nigeria. Known as the African Club Champions Cup at birth in 1964, the competition transformed into the Champions League in 1997 with the introduction of direct elimination rounds plus a group phase. In both structures, Nigeria’s best showing was reaching the final on four occasions – Rangers in 1975, Shooting Stars (1984 and 1996), and Iwuanyanwu Nationale, now known as Heartland (1988).

When Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu became Governor of Abia State in 1999, he put his weight behind Enyimba FC, which had been founded in 1976. The human and material investment paid off in 2003.

Enyimba had represented Nigeria for the first time in the Champions League in the 2002 edition but were eliminated in the second round by ASEC Mimosas of Cote d’Ivoire 4-5 aggregate. The mistakes were avoided the following year and the Aba side went all the way to the final. Egypt’s Ismaily stood between inspired Enyimba and a historic win. In the first leg at the Enyimba International Stadium, Aba, on November 30, 2003, the home side triumphed 2-0. Emeka Nwanna (28th minute) and Ndidi Anumnu (49th minute) gave Enyimba the advantage as they travelled to Egypt for the crucial return fixture.

On December 12, 2003, a 27th minute penalty converted by Hosny Abd Rabo generated tension for the Nigerians at the Ismaila Stadium and millions of their compatriots glued to the TV sets across the world. But the Nigerian representatives held their nerves to the end and lifted the trophy for the first time for their country. Enyimba proved that their feat was no fluke as they successfully defended the title by beating Sudan’s Etoile du Sahel on penalties the following year, after both legs of the final had ended 2-1 in favour of the home teams.

Since that time – 11 years ago – Nigerian clubs in the competition had rewarded their fans’ enthusiasm and support with disappointment. Apart from the all-Nigerian semi-final in 2009 when Heartland defeated Kano Pillars 5-0 aggregate only to lose in the final on away goal rule to TP Mazembe of DR Congo, the farthest any Nigerian team had travelled was a semi-final hurray for Sunshine Stars three years ago. No Nigerian side had featured in the group stage in the last three editions. Indeed, if Nigeria’s poor run continues, there might soon be only one team, instead of two, representing Africa’s most populous country in the CAF Champions League.

For Enyimba – as well as Warri Wolves, who will be participating in the continent’s elite tournament for the first time next year – they must work towards retaining the bulk of the players that earned them the top two positions in the domestic league in the just concluded season.

The news from Aba is already worrying. Immediately Enyimba lifted the league title for the seventh time, their chairman and long-time inspiration, Felix Anyansi-Agwu, called it quits with the club, citing “intense pressure.” He explained: “The pressure on me to quit has been unprecedented despite quality results I have garnered within the period.” That is one departure that may well affect Enyimba’s chances both on the domestic and international fronts next season. In his over 16 years involvement with the team, Anyansi-Agwu led the People’s Elephant to the memorable back-to-back CAF Champions League wins, several league titles and Federation Cup shields, among other laurels.

While Enyimba must quickly resolve their boardroom squabble, Warri Wolves appear to have a steady situation as the players have been well motivated. The Seasiders, whose chairman Amaju Pinnick is the president of the Nigeria Football Federation, have continental experience, despite this being their first Champions League qualification. In the 2010 and 2012 editions of the CAF Confederation Cup, they were eliminated in the second round, but performed better in their third attempt this year. Indeed, with the ousting of Enyimba and Kano Pillars in the first round of the Champions League, Warri Wolves remained the only Nigerian team in CAF club competitions this year until they were edged out 4-3 aggregate in the group play-off round by DR Congo’s AC Leopards.

From 2004 when the African Cup Winners Cup was merged with the CAF Cup to forge the CAF Confederation Cup, Nigeria’s best performances were semi-final qualifications by Bayelsa United in 2009 and Sunshine Stars in 2011. In that same 2011, Kaduna United also qualified for the group stage; the same stage both Kwara United and Dolphins FC got to in 2007 and were paired in the same group. Both sides could not advance to the final. Interestingly, Kaduna United were relegated from the Nigeria Premier League last season, while both Kwara United and Bayelsa United followed that inglorious route this just gone season.

Nasarawa United, being the third placed team in the just concluded NPL, will fly Nigeria’s flag in the CAF Confederation Cup next year alongside Akwa United, who defeated Lobi Stars in the Federation Cup final November 22 at the Teslim Balogun Stadium, Lagos.

Nasarawa United’s only time in the continent was in the CAF Champions League in 2007. Starting from the preliminary round, they got to the second round only to lose to Sudanese team Al-Hilal 2-3 penalties after 3-3 deadlock in both legs. They will be returning to Africa on the strength of a delightful campaign on the domestic front, which included their record-breaking defeat of Kano Pillars on Matchday 25. Until that day, Pillars had not lost a league match at their Sani Abacha Stadium home ground in Kano for 12 years in 201 matches. Nasarawa United shattered that record with a 2-1 result.

Akwa United’s victory at the Federation Cup final denied Lobi Stars the opportunity of returning to continental duties. After winning the NPL in 1999, the Benue State team finished third in Group B of the group stage of the 2000 CAF Champions League and were eliminated in the earlier rounds of the 2004, 2006 and 2013 editions of CAF Confederation Cup.

Akwa United will be making history next year having never featured in any international club competition.

Enyimba will begin their quest for the CAF Champions League title with a preliminary round first leg match away to Vibers of Uganda, while Warri Wolves will host Sporting Praia Cruz of Sao Tome and Principe. History beckons on the present squad of Enyimba to emulate the feat of their 2003/2004 illustrious predecessors.

In the CAF Confederation Cup, Nasarawa United welcome Senegal’s Generation Foot in the first leg of the preliminary round, while Akwa United will travel to Republic of Congo to take on Vita Club Mokanda.

•Muyiwa Akintunde is a Lagos-based Journalist, PR practitioner and Sports Analyst. Photo shows Enyimba celebrating their 2015 Glo Premier League triumph.

Source News Express

Posted December 14, 2015

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