COMMENT By Kunle Fayiga Follow on Twitter
The big challenges come up this weekend, as Lobi take on Kenyan giants Gor Mahia in the Champions League final qualification round, while Rangers are up against USM Bel Abbes in the Confderation Cup second qualification round.
K’Ogalo have wealth of experience on the continental scene, and that’s not hard to understand as they are Kenya’s most successful team with 17 Premier League titles. However, their consistent representation has not led to any title triumph in the African elite competition, they’ll be looking to avoid last season’s disappointment, where they narrowly lost out to eventual champions Esperance in this round and dropped into the Confederation Cup.
Our next match in #CAFCL is scheduled for Sunday, December 16, 2018 at the 60,000 capacity Moi International Sports Centre. It's our first visit to #Kenya. #Expectations #WeAreLobi #PrideOfBenue. @LMCNPFL pic.twitter.com/4cSMDBDfCQ— Lobi Stars FC (@LobiStars) December 11, 2018
Lobi Stars' only appearance in the Champions League came in 2000 on the back of winning the league in 1999. They did manage to reach the group phase – the last hurdle before the final – but could only finish third in Group B behind Hearts of Oak and Al-Ahly.
Even though Gor Mahia are a more decorated club than the Makurdi outfit, coach Solomon Ogbeide sees his side as a match for the Kenyans.
“Of course we know that Gor Mahia are a very big club from Kenya but the business…is the match on the field of play and Lobi Stars are also a big team,” he told the official Caf website.
The veteran coach believes his men are ready to challenge having recruited some big names in the Nigeria Professional Football League during the offseason. Kelly Kester, Samuel Mathias, Nojeem Olukokun and Sikiru Alimi have all arrived, but, as he said, the pitch is where the business is, and Lobi must prove they have what it takes to dispatch Gor.
Bel Abbes aren’t one of the big Algerian teams, having spent a chunk of their history in the lower tier where they won the Ligue 2 title five times.
They were able to qualify for the Confederation Cup after winning the Algerian Cup, even as they finished 10th in Ligue 1.
This will be their first ever appearance in the Confed Cup, and having seen off LISCR FC of Liberia in the preliminary round, they’ll be looking continue making strides in their maiden season in Africa.
Rangers do have better history than their Algerians counterparts; they've appeared four times under the current competition name, and were close to making it to the 2004 final only to lose out to Ghana’s Asante Kotoko in the group phase.
USM Bel-Abbes aren't 1 of Algeria's strong sides.....they're also in the relegation zone domestically with only 1 win in their last 5 (advantage: @RangersIntFC)— Charles Ntima (@charlesntima) December 9, 2018
The plan is simple;
1. Draw in Algeria this Friday
2. Slaughter them at the Cathedral next week
3. Then celebrate Xmas
Since then, they’ve failed to reach that round as the tournament has gone through a few tweaks, and they suffered a heavy 5-2 aggregate loss to ZESCO United in last year’s final qualification round.
If there’s one man confident of taking the Flying Antelopes that far, it’s Gbenga Ogunbote - who is famously known for leading Sunshine Stars to the semi-finals of the Confed Cup and Champions League in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
"Self belief, positivism and the will to succeed will see us through", coach OGUNBOTE.— Rangers Int. FC (@RangersIntFC) December 10, 2018
The former Shooting Stars boss – who saw his Rangers side stage a miraculous comeback from three goals down to lift the 2018 Federation Cup title against Kano Pillars in Asaba back in October, revealed on Caf's official website that his squad's togetherness could spur them to an unlikely success in Africa.
"My understanding of the game is that we are a team and teams means together everyone can achieve much,” he said.
“So our collective contribution as team is very important if we want to go far in this competition.”
One big setback for Lobi Stars and Enugu Rangers is the inactivity of the NPFL; the Nigerian top flight was supposed to kick off last weekend, but the failure for the Nigeria National League to hold its promotion playoffs has put things on hold.
This would mean Nigeria’s representatives are starved of competitive sharpness while their opponents are already in the midst of domestic campaigns. Indeed, the Kenyan Premier League just started this weekend while the Algerian Ligue 1 is 15 matchdays old.
Virtually all Nigerian club sides, both big and small, cherish the continental competitions and often set qualification for the group stage as an objective.
With only two standard-bearers this year, the pressure is on Stars and Rangers to continue to fly the flag for the beleaguered NPFL.
However, the duo have their work cut out.