Can Lobi Stars qualify from Caf Champions League ‘Group of Death’?

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The Pride of Benue were pitted against three former champions in the premier competition, and face an uphill struggle to progress

COMMENT    By Kunle Fayiga     Follow on Twitter
 

That the Nigeria Professional Football League ended with 14 matchdays still to play raised questions about whether Lobi Stars deserved to be Nigeria’s representatives in the Caf Champions League.

However, in the midst of all the debate, Solomon Ogbeide’s men have shown considerable grit by seeing off UMS de Loum and Gor Mahia to make it to the group phase.

Ahead of Friday’s draw in Cairo, it was clear that the Makurdi outfit would be pitted in a very tough group, as they were among the bottom seeds. They were ultimately drawn alongside Wydad Casablanca, Mamelodi Sundowns and ASEC Mimosas in Group A.

This is the toughest group of the quartet, as all three teams are former Champions League winners; Wydad in 1992 and 2017, Sundowns in 2016, while ASEC were crowned in 1998.

Does this mean the Pride of Benue are doomed?

This is only the second time ever that Lobi will be participating in the Champions League, and they've never before escaped from the group, after finishing third behind eventual champions Hearts of Oak and Al Ahly in 2000.

That might have been 18 years ago, with things evolving subsequently, but things don't appear any easier for the Stars.

It’s not just about the fact that Wydad, Downs and ASEC are former African champions, they have equally been dominant on the domestic scene as they have the record number of league titles in Morocco (19), South Africa (eight) and Ivory Coast (26) respectively.

They also boast international players, and each represent different, daunting prospects for Stars.

Certainly, Stars are underdogs, but they may relish this status as they look to forge some Caf CL history.

Mamelodi Sundowns celebrate winning Caf Champions League

If anything, a sense of determination and hard work could make the Stars an unexpected success in the competition. Coach Ogbeide has consistently spoken of how prepared his team are to tackle the Champions League and prove doubters wrong that the Benue State capital club’s participation, even though not as official league champions, is deserved.

With the likes of Sikiru Alimi, who already has three strikes to his name in the elite competition and other new recruits, there is a lot to be hopeful about.

The financial boost of playing in the group stage - a whooping $550,000 (nearly 200 million Naira) - should also have improved the mood of the camp, particularly considering how funds are scarcely generated by Nigerian clubs and players not typically adequately remunerated.

However, Stars have their work cut out and must learn quickly how to maximise their home advantage and develop a strategy to trouble their more illustrious opponents away from home.

The Pride of Benue kick off their campaign against Sundowns at home on January 11, but one major factor that could affect their preparations is the resumption of the NPFL.

Sikiru Alimi

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January 13 has been fixed as official the resumption date, but that is dependent on the Nigeria National League holding their promotion playoffs to produce four teams moving into the top flight.

The second tier’s insistence on all eight teams getting promoted without the playoffs has put things in deadlock, and this will starve Lobi of the much needed competitive sharpness that their continental rivals will enjoy.

Group A isn’t an ideal draw for Stars, but it certainly represents an opportunity for the unlikely NPFL representatives to prove that they belong among Africa's top teams.

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