Wednesday, October 20, 2021
HomeSportEXCLUSIVE: Can Rivers United break Nigeria’s Caf Champions League group phase jinx?

EXCLUSIVE: Can Rivers United break Nigeria’s Caf Champions League group phase jinx?

The Port Harcourt giants are one spot away from the group phase of the elite African club football competition.

Enyimba’s back-to-back triumphs in the Caf Champions League in 2003 and 2004 has forever created an impression of strength and glory for Nigerian club sides on the African scene.

The problem though is that since then, no other Nigerian club has won the competition. Only Heartland came close in 2009, but they lost to TP Mazembe on away goals in the final.

Enyimba’s Champions League stock has fallen since that glorious moment as well, with only a semi-final appearance in 2008 and 2011 their next best effort. For a club that has such prestige, it’s amazing that they’ve spent more time lately in the second-tier tournament, the Caf Confederation Cup. Even there, they’ve not managed to win, with a semi-final appearance in 2018 their best effort.

One damming re-occurrence for Nigerian clubs in the Champions League is they have failed to make it into the group phase since 2016. Enyimba were the last to do this, but they got knocked out by finishing in third place behind Mamelodi Sundowns and Zamalek.

Current NPFL champions Akwa United have gotten the axe at first hurdle of the current edition after losing 2-1 on aggregate to Algerian Ligue 1 champions CR Belouizdad in the preliminary round.

This means only one Nigerian representative is left in Rivers United. The men from Port Harcourt are making their second appearance in the competition and got the better of Tanzanian giants Young Africans with a 2-0 aggregate victory in the previous round. Next up for them is Sudanese powerhouse Al-Hilal. The Blue Waves dispatched Ethiopian side Fasil Kenema via away goals in their own preliminary round.

Does Rivers stand a chance of getting the better of the men from Omdurman this weekend?

It’s going to be a difficult one for Stanley Eguma’s side. Al-Hilal are regular faces in the Champions League, qualifying every year since 2004 and have made the semi-finals four times in that period (2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015).

What’s more is that United have faced Sudanese opposition before in their only previous Champions League outing. They were up against Al-Merrikh in the final qualification round and after a comfortable 3-0 first leg lead in Port Harcourt, came crashing down in Omdurman in the return leg with a 4-0 loss.

There is however hope in that Rivers United can put up a good performance that can aid their cause. They are known to have a good scoring record in continental games. 15 goals were scored in the Champions League and Confederation Cup combined in 2017 while nine were scored against three opponents during the 2020-21 Confed Cup qualifiers.

As much Rivers aren’t scared to find the back of the net at any time, some think that isn’t enough, believing they need to score more if they really want to make progress. This is the opinion of Champions League winner Victor Ezeji who spoke to Pulse in an exclusive interview.

“The issue I have with Rivers United is that they are not a high scoring side and this time of the competition is about goals,” the former Enyimba forward said.

“If you don’t score goals, you will hardly qualify. When they played against Al-Merrikh, they won 3-0 here and lost 4-0 in Sudan. It tells us that something is really wrong.

“Rivers United if you watched them play last season, they were not a high scoring side. Look at their last Champions League game against Young Africans, they won 1-0 in both legs, it tells you they need to improve on their scoring abilities if they really want to go far in this competition. The only way they can get that far is by winning their games and winning convincingly.”

Ezeji still asserts that Rivers United are solid defensively, giving further emphasis on why scoring well is a must if they want to make it to the group phase, drawing parallels with Akwa United’s loss to Belouizdad last time out. The Promise Keepers won 1-0 in Uyo only to get whooped 2-0 in Algiers.

“If they are able to beat Al-Hilal here by three, four goals, at least it’s going to be difficult for them to concede high number of goals because defensively they [Rivers United] are very good,” the ex-Sharks and Dolphins man continued.

“It’s just for them to put the ball into the net and that is the only way they can progress. If they fail to do that in the first leg then it is going to be a very difficult run.

“We saw what happened to Akwa United in the last round, so I think for Rivers United to progress which is very very key for them, they must score more goals in the first leg.”

Eguma’s charges will play the first leg at home before travelling to Omdurman a week later.

If they can control the narrative by keeping their guard up over the two legs, a first Nigerian representative in the Champions League group phase in five years will be a reality. It’s a tough task, but very much achievable. Over to you Rivers United.

Kunle is an avid writer with interest in topics on sports, politics and health. His articles have featured in Goal.com, Opera News and Vanguard News. He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in International Relations and is an advocate for people living with Hydrocephalus and other neurological conditions. Follow him on Twitter: @kfayiga

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Pulse Contributors is an initiative to highlight diverse journalistic voices. Pulse Contributors do not represent the company Pulse and contribute on their own behalf.

Olafare Michael Oluwabukolahttps://t.me/notchplug
A Nationa Diploma holder in Computer Science at LENS POLYTECHNIC Offa, a full-time blogger, beatmaker, modern graphics designer, talent manager, and a vocalist
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