Enyimba approached their Caf Confederation Cup semi-final first leg tie against Moroccan giants Raja Casablanca on Wednesday knowing that they had to make home advantage count in front of their own fans.
Things also started promisingly, as the Green Eagles had the top scorer in this year’s competition - Mahmoud Benhalib - confined to the bench after getting injured in training. Mouhcine Iajour also started among the substitutes.
The absence of these key men from the starting XI should have played into Enyimba’s hands, but the two-time Caf Champions League winners – who were still fresh from a gruelling Federation Cup group-stage schedule, where they played three games in the space of three days – could not capitalise.
They started the game off rather drably, a far cry from the lively side that thumped Rayon Sports 5-1 in Aba .
Raja carved out the first notable chance for Zakaria Hadraf in the 16th minute, but his shot went off target after a good attacking move. Enyimba’s best chance in the first half came from Dare Ojo, whose fierce shot was dealt with by Raja goalie Anas Zniti.
All eyes were on Sunday Adetunji to deliver again after his heroics against Rayon Sports and in the Federation Cup, but his evident lack of pace meant he could not race past the Green Eagles' backline when he had the ball.
Juan Carlos Garrido’s charges had the best opportunity to open the scoring a minute before the break, but Badr Banoun couldn't finish off a fine move.
The 11-time Botola champions were, however, not going to be denied their moment, and Abdelilah Hafidi gave them the lead two minutes after the restart as heavy downpour descended on the Enyimba stadium.
Not to be unkind, but Enyimba really should have been eliminated in the play-off round before the Group Stage. For their ability, they have already massively overachieved getting to the semi-final.
Anything else (and it isn't looking like there will be much else) is a bonus. — Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) October 3, 2018
Enyimba showed no signs of wanting to fight back, but were gifted an unlikely penalty in the 66th minute after Raja defender Sanad Al-Warfali handled the ball in the 18-yard area. Stanley Dimgba – the club’s preferred penalty taker – did not do any justice to the opportunity as he ballooned his effort over the crossbar.
Theophilus Afelokhai – who has earned rave reviews for his impressive performances since debuting against Djoliba – went off injured in the 75th minute and was replaced by Super Eagles number two Ikechukwu Ezenwa, but it did not change anything as the game ended 1-0 .
Somebody sat down in his office and asked that a club representing Nigeria in the semifinals of a Continental competition to play 4 matches in 7 days.
Tufiakwa. — Enyimba Blog (@EnyimbaEnyi) September 27, 2018
The result now leaves Enyimba in a very difficult situation as they head to Casablanca in three weeks, now knowing they need to score in North Africa. The backing of a 67,000-strong crowd at the Stade Mohamed V will represent a major advantage for Raja.
Forget about the missed penalty from Stanley Dimgba. The whole Enyimba team have been below poor in this game. That missed spot kick only summed up their display so far. End of the road, surely. #ENYRAJ #CAFCC — Godwin Odiko (@GodwinOdiko) October 3, 2018
Raja Casablanca came with a game plan and they executed it perfectly.
We can forget that the People’s Elephant beat the Moroccans 2-0 over two legs in their only previous meeting back in the 2011 Caf Champions League group stages, as on this occasion, they appeared to lack the hunger and drive to prompt a repeat.
Instead, it was Garrido’s men who played like they were the ones at home, and did not seem pressured, appearing very comfortable in Aba.
Perhaps if Benhalib and Iajour started upfront, it could have been a bigger scoreline, meaning this tie would have been done and dusted before the return leg in the Moroccan commercial capital.
It's not over yet, but certainly Enyimba have a massive mountain to climb if they're to reach another continental final.