Enyimba may feel like they carry the hopes of Nigerian football on their shoulders when they face Rayon Sports in the second leg of their Caf Confederation Cup quarter-final on Sunday.
Not only is the People’s Elephant’s progress in the competition hanging in the balance, but so too are Nigeria’s slots in future continental competitions following the NPFL having their slots reduced from four to two.
Enyimba were held 0-0 by Rayon in the first leg in Rwanda, and will be aware that an away goal could leave them in a tricky position in front of their own fans in Aba on Sunday.
Here are the key elements that will decide where this game is won and lost.
In the goalkeeping department, it is vital for Enyimba to stick with Theophilus Afelokhai, who has kept three consecutive clean sheets since he was given the opportunity against Djoliba AC of Mali.
Ikechukwu Ezenwa and Fatau Dauda are good keepers, but on current form, Afelokhai must be considered ahead of them.
He put his body on the line in Bamako against Djoliba AC where he made series of good saves before Enyimba got a lifeline at the death through Farouk Mohammed’s penalty kick in the dying moments.
The game could have become a no contest had Djoliba converted some of the few chances they had before the late goal, and it was the same in the game with CARA Brazzaville of Congo and against Rayon in Kigali.
Afelokhai has developed a synergy with his teammates in the last three games, and the former Kano Pillars goaltender must be wary of complacency on Sunday after a monstrous display in Kigali to deny Rayon Sports from going into the second leg with an advantage.
Enyimba’s defence has been in good form after their shaky start in the Caf Confederation Cup against Energie FC of Benin, having kept seven clean sheets from 11 matches.
Ikouwem Utin, Andrew Abalogu, Ifeanyi Anaemena, Isiaka Oladuntoye, Dare Ojo and Nelson Ogbonnaya have featured prominently for the People’s Elephant in this season’s Caf Confederation Cup campaign.
Ikouwem and Abalogu have been very effective in the left and right wing-back positions, while two out of Anaemena, Oladuntoye, Ogbonnaya and Uche John have been paired in central defence.
Anaemena and Oladuntoye have played the last three consecutive games for the People’s Elephant and should start again.
The defence, despite keeping a clean sheet in Kigali, cannot be complacent, and any slip up could prove costly considering the away-goals rule.
Enyimba are blessed with many midfielders, but their undoing is lack of creativity in the heart of the park.
Ikechukwu Ibenegbu, Austin Oladapo and Chinedu Udeagha could be solutions, however, the Ibenegbu’s injury has limited his contribution.
By contrast, in defensive midfield, with Ojo and Farouk Mohammed have both impressed.
Mohammed was sorely missed in Kigali in the first leg after he served a suspension and should return, while Ojo is another valuable option.
For Enyimba to think of progressing to the next round, they must boss the midfield, and it is here that Mohammed, Oladapo and Chinedu Udeagha have a role to play.
They must be willing to hold possession and also try to stifle Rayon Sports’ attacking forays without leaving their defence exposed.
With the way Enyimba played the first leg in Kigali last week, it will be difficult for the Rwandans to put a stop to them in the midfield, and the hosts should feel confident that they can blow the East Africans away.
This is a department Enyimba must really examine at the end of the campaign because the attack has not lived up to expectations in recent months.
They have strikers with an impeccable scoring record, but it is still a mystery while they have underperformed this season.
Ibrahim Mustapha, Stephen Chukwude, Abdulrahman Bashir, Joseph Osadiaye, Wasiu Alalade and Sunday Adetunji all offer qualities, but they have failed to deliver this season.
Enyimba had every opportunity to kill off the contest last weekend, but frittered away too many chances.
It’s been a consistent theme throughout their campaign, and their strikers must begin to take responsibility in front of goal, particularly with chances likely to be few and far between.
The absence of Mfon Udoh, amidst acrimonious circumstances, is a huge loss, and it’s imperative that someone steps up to make the most of the dominance that Enyimba will surely enjoy.