COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
For the longest time, it looked like Plateau United were going to fall just short.
It was their first ever appearance in the Caf Champions League, and they were playing at home against Cameroonian champions Eding Sport. They were in the lead alright; the trouble was that there was only one goal in it.
Knowing the nature of Africa's premier club competition, a one-goal lead is a meager one, especially when there is an away leg to negotiate. Even considering that the Cameroonian side had not traveled to Nigeria with their manager, no one expected them to roll over. Still though, more had to happen, and fast.
That ought to be that for Plateau United. Three goals, a clean sheet; surely insurmountable for Eding Sport. Tremendous result.
Not so much for Akwa United, who can't seem to buy a home win for love or money on the continent. #CAFCL #CAFCC — Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) February 11, 2018
Plateau managed it in the end, adding two more goals late on. Far from gloss, those have now added a layer of security to the tie, the second leg of which comes up on Wednesday.
Over in Bamako, MFM FC were also debuting. Unlike Plateau United, their league form has been decidedly indifferent following their impressive second-place finish last term, but there has been a quiet confidence that they can up their game on the continent.
That confidence was vindicated in a 1-1 draw against Real Bamako, a result which hands Fidelis Ilechukwu's side the initiative ahead of the return leg in Lagos.
Essentially, by virtue of those results, both Nigerian sides are favourites ahead of their respective returns. However, nothing is dusted just yet, and there is a cautionary tale from as recently as last year which Plateau in particular would do well to heed.
Which of the unfamiliar CAF Champions League representatives representing big(ish) nations do you think will go the furthest in the tournament this year? — Ed Dove (@EddyDove) February 20, 2018
Rivers United, one of the two Nigerian representatives last year along with Enugu Rangers, built up what seemed like a healthy enough lead when they trounced Sudanese giants Al Merrikh by three unreplied goals in Port Harcourt. It was a thoroughly impressive performance, up there among the most impressive by a Nigerian club on the continent in recent times.
What followed, however, was scarcely credible.
Rivers boss Stanley Eguma, intent on protecting the lead first and foremost, fielded an overly defensive lineup and set-up for the second leg. This was a complete departure from the enterprise of the first leg, and the occasion punished that act of self-betrayal. Disbelief slowly gave way to horror, as Merrikh broke upon Rivers like a wave, mauling them 4-0 to turn the tie on its head and qualify in their stead.
They would lament their error afterward, but perhaps part of that is not their fault.
The Nigerian league is hardly good preparation, with the prevailing mindset among most teams being that away games are simply for keeping things tight at the back. That is changing, of course, but not quickly enough.
As long as the away-goals rule remains in effect, that will continue to be an effective strategy, and that is entirely understandable. What afflicted Rivers, and what might yet afflict Plateau, is the inability to balance defensive and attacking ambitions.
It is why, beyond the mere fact that playing the return at home comes with a statistically proven advantage, Nigerian teams often seem to crumple when going away for the second leg. Needing to get a result at home is a reality most are comfortable with; needing to away from home, less so.
For MFM, it is somewhat simpler: they simply must not concede. That is not as easy as it sounds though.
Under Ilechukwu, they play a brand of football that is easy on the eye, but there is a sense that they can be vulnerable at the back.
If so, then scoring becomes all the more important for them. Their attack, though, has not been in high tide since the departure of hotshot Stephen Odey last year. As such, perhaps it is easier for them to simply spoil; a run-and-gun is likely to see them short-handed.
For all that they hold the aces, there is enough intrigue left in both ties concerning Nigerian teams that nothing is quite settled yet.
Experience may not be an asset either side possesses, but they can learn from history in order to avoid making it for all the wrong reasons.