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In this special article, Goal.com chronicles five of the most memorable Nigerian performances in Europes' top club competition as it nears a climax this season

SPECIAL
By Lolade Adewuyi | Chief Editor

Seventeen years ago, when the Uefa Champions League was not as popular as it is today among Nigerian audiences, two young Nigerians went all the way to the finals with their Dutch club and won the competition.

Years later, the tournament has grown in leaps and bounds in the consciousness of audiences across Africa’s most populated country.

In this article, Goal.com chronicles the most memorable Nigerian performances in the Champions League.

5. VINCENT ENYEAMA

Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama wrote his story into Uefa Champions League folklore when he scored the opening goal via a penalty kick in Hapoel Tel Aviv’s 3-2 away victory over Red Bull Salzburg in August 2010. The Nigeria number one, who has never been afraid to take spot kick responsibility, shot the visitors ahead in the third minute of the encounter. Enyeama later scored in the Group Stage against French top team Lyon in a 3-1 defeat. His scoring prowess made Goal.com place an odd on him to score in their next game against Schalke.

However, Hapoel were eliminated and Enyeama has since made the move to French champions Lille where he waits in the wings for an opportunity to claim the starting jersey from home boy Mickael Landreau.


4. YAKUBU AIYEGBENI


Nigeria striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni needed only to play one season in the Champions League to leave a lasting record for compatriots coming after him. In the 2002-03 season, Yakubu scored seven goals for Israeli side Maccabi Haifa to help them move into the knock out stage of the Uefa Cup. It is the highest number of goals ever scored by a Nigerian in the tournament. It began with a brace in the qualifying stage against Austrian side Sturm Graz. He increased it a notch to a hat trick in the group stage victory against Greek team Olympiacos, scored a penalty in a 3-0 defeat of Manchester United and got another goal in the return leg 3-3 draw with Olympiacos.

Even though Maccabi failed to progress to the knock out stage of the Champions League, they moved into the next phase of the Uefa Cup where they unfortunately lost 8-1 to AEK Athens without Yakubu who had made a loan move to Portsmouth in January of 2003. He has not played in the competition since but his goals attest to his prowess.


3. JOHN OBI MIKEL


Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is only the third Nigerian to have featured in the final of the Uefa Champions League, albeit in a non-playing substitute role. Mikel was on the losing side in the 2008 final as Chelsea fell via penalties to Manchester United in a very tense all-English final played in Moscow. Still wet behind the ears, Mikel was an understudy to France international Claude Makelele in the holding midfield role.

However, Mikel has since grown into a key first team player and has consistently helped the Stamford Bridge outfit to compete in the knockout stages of the competition year after year. Chelsea are presently in the semi finals of the tournament and could go as far as the finals once more with luck on their side if they finish their job against Barcelona on Tuesday. The Nigerian could be presented another opportunity to make history.


2. FINIDI GEORGE


Once described as the best right winger in the world, Finidi George moved to Europe from Sharks of Port Harcourt in 1993. At Ajax, he became one of the best passers of the ball in Europe where he earned plaudits for his impressive performances every week. This helped Ajax to win three straight Dutch league titles and also to propel them in the Champions League. His number Seven jersey became synonymous with grace and elegance as he ran past defenders delivering passes that seemed to simplify the work of strikers.

George won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 when they edged past AC Milan 1-0. Alongside compatriot Nwankwo Kanu, he became the first Nigerian to win European club football’s most coveted title. An attempt to win it a second time was scuttled by Juventus a year later when Ajax lost via penalties in the final. He left the Dutch giants afterwards to join Real Betis after turning down Real Madrid.


1. NWANKWO KANU


Lanky Nwankwo Kanu shot to fame with his exploits in Nigeria’s victorious Under-17 national team in 1993. Soon after, he moved to Europe where he had been spotted by Dutch giants Ajax who were building a team of exciting young players. After months of being in the youth set up, Kanu slowly began to assert himself and the next year was promoted to the first squad where he played in the Champions League. He scored against Croatian side Hajduk Split in the quarter finals.

The young player came on as a substitute in the final where Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0 in Vienna to carve his name and that amazing Dutch team into Champions League legend. A year later, now assured of a starting place in the Ajax squad, Kanu once again played in the final of the competition but was unlucky to lose to Juventus via penalties.

Kanu moved to Arsenal in 1999 but did not reach the heights of 1995 as the Gunners could only manage a quarter-final finish in the last year of his contract there.

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