Having seen off UMS de Loum and Gor Mahia in the qualification rounds, Lobi Stars finally got down to business in the Caf Champions League with their first big test in the ‘Group of Death’ against reigning South African Premier Soccer League champions Mamelodi Sundowns.
It turned out to be memorable day as the Pride of Benue ran out 2-1 winners, truly delivering a continental statement.
Things didn’t start out well for Solomon Ogbeide’s side though, as they barely looked sharp in attack and were woeful in defence.
The Nigerians lacked synergy for a large chunk of the first half which their opponents capitalised on and took a well-deserved lead six minutes from the break through Anthony Laffor. It prompted an improvement in Lobi, and they finally came to life, testing veteran goalie Kennedy Mweene before getting a penalty in the 43rd minute which Yaya Kone converted.
The West African outfit started the second half like a house on fire, and after being denied by successive Mweene saves and an offside call, they eventually took the lead through former El-Kanemi Warriors midfielder Samuel Matthias.
It was ultimately a goal that guaranteed a morale-boosting victory.
In truth, Sundowns never looked like they wanted to make something happen, a shame when It seemed like they would clinch all three points with their first-half display. Falling behind can often ignite a fire in a team, and this was certainly the case with Ogbeide's charges.
Very efficient display by @LobiStars. Not sure I've seen a Nigerian side put up a professional performance like this in a long time.
FT. @LobiStars 2-1 @Masandawana #CAFCL #LOBSUN — Andrew Randa (@RandaAndrew) January 11, 2019
Indeed, the Nigerians' total shots of 23 to the South Africans' eight tells the story of how fortunes quickly reversed. The Stars didn’t look like novices who were making only their second ever appearance in the Champions League, while Sundowns were a far cry from the team that claimed continental glory in 2016.
Credit has to be given to Lobi for passing their first big test just when it seemed they were bound to fail.
After this, they will not fear any of their other opponents in the 'Group of Death'. It's the kind of showing that restores faith in the Nigeria Professional Football League after last year's shambles, and should affirm to Stars fans that they belong in the competition.
With the Nigeria National League playoffs decided, and the NPFL kicking off this weekend, the Pride of Benue will finally get to have competitive action under their belt after eight months of inactivity in the top flight.
Encouragingly, the new recruits, despite limited playing time, have continued to gel with he team.
One man who dazzled was Sunday Adetunji.
The former Shooting Stars forward, who starred for Enyimba during the Caf Confederation Cup last season, troubled Sundowns with his movement inside the box and would have scored had it not been for Mweene’s heroics.
Lobi’s next assignment is a road trip to ASEC Mimosas, who suffered a 5-2 defeat away to 2017 Champions League winners Wydad Casablanca.
Since lifting the continental crown in 1998, the Ivorians have struggled to make an impact, with their last best performance coming 13 years ago when they made to the semi-finals only to lose out to Al-Ahly.
Could this be a chance for Ogbeide’s men to get another fantastic result?
If they can maintain this fine form without losing focus, they look in a strong position to hold their own in the Group of Death and, who knows, perhaps even escape to the knockout rounds.