COMMENT By Kunle Fayiga Follow on Twitter
The Nigeria Professional Football League might have ended abruptly, but the country’s most successful club, Enyimba, have been able to keep fans engaged thanks to their fine run in the Caf Confederation Cup.
Their 5-1 quarter-final aggregate win over Rayon Sports extended their record run in Africa's second-tier competition, having previously not gone further than the final qualification round back in 2010.
Therefore, there's that sense that, with the Aba giants in high spirits, they could go all the way and lift the title.
However, Enyimba first have to get past Raja Casablanca in the semi-finals.
The first leg takes place at the Enyimba Stadium on Wednesday, with Usman Abdallah’s side making a trip to the Moroccan commercial capital three weeks later.
With a home time coming first, Enyimba need to get things right to make the return leg less worrisome. To this effect, they need to come out all guns blazing, score as many goals as possible and try to keep Raja quiet.
FLASH: Fatau Dauda and Mfon Udoh unlikely to be in the team for Wednesday’s clash vs Raja Casablanca.— Enyimba Blog (@EnyimbaEnyi) September 30, 2018
Obivously, this is easier said than done.
For a start, no team has scored more goals than Juan Carlos Garrido’s side so far this tournament. In the group phase, they scored 14 goals, 13 which came against Ghanaian side Aduana Stars and ASEC Mimosas of the Ivory Coast as they topped Group A.
The Moroccan giants conceded five goals in the group phase, all which came away, and this could be good news for Enyimba as they play at home. However, Raja's threat up front would appear to give them the edge.
They scored four times on the road in the group stages, and scored twice at CARA Brazzaville as they edged past the Congolese heavyweights 3-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.
One player who has been key in Raja’s run in the Confederation Cup so far is Mahmoud Benhalib.
The 22-year old was responsible for seven of the Green Eagles’ 14 goals during the group phase and also got one away at CARA. He also scored three times during the qualification round.
With a total of 11 goals and still counting, he sits pretty at the top of the Confederation Cup scorers charts this year.
Someone just said "If Man Utd still play with Enyimba, they will still be beaten." pic.twitter.com/MHc8lAidg3— @IamTemitorpe (@IamTemitorpe) September 29, 2018
Two other players that Enyimba need to be wary about are Zakaria Hadraf and Mouhcine Iajour, with the duo boasting of a combined 10 continental goals. They also have history of delivering for Morocco against Nigeria in the African Nations Championship.
Hadraf scored twice in the 4-0 victory in the 2018 CHAN final on home soil. Iajour, for his part, scored in the Atlas Lions’ 4-3 extra time quarter-final defeat to the Super Eagles during the 2014 edition in South Africa.
Raja Casablanca might be the favourites to make it to the final but there’s a bit of comfort in knowing that Enyimba had the better of them during the group phase of the 2011 Champions League. The People’s Elephant beat them 2-0 thanks to strikes from Uche Kalu and Chidozie Johnson before sealing a goalless draw in Casablanca, with the Nigeria giants topping Group A while Raja finished bottom of the pile.
That last time Enyimba won CAF tournament was the African Super Cup 2005 - are Enyimba good for this year's Caf Confederation Cup title? pic.twitter.com/gYKglwhvj2— Goal Nigeria (@GoalcomNigeria) September 25, 2018
Enyimba would end up losing narrowly 1-0 on aggregate to the other Casablanca giants, Wydad, in the semi-finals.
As stated earlier, Enyimba would be full of confidence.
They were able to negotiate a hectic week in the Federation Cup group phase where they played three games within three days in faraway Gombe, winning twice and drawing once to make it through to the last eight of the domestic cup competition.
The fringe players really made a name for themselves and now the main squad will be raring to go.
The focus will be on Sunday Adetunji, who is finally settling in Aba after his switch from Enyimba’s fierce rivals Abia Warriors.
He scored in the 5-1 mauling of Rayon Sports and also got the solitary strikes in the 1-0 win over Katsina United and the 1-1 draw against 2017 NPFL champions Plateau United in the Federation Cup group phase last week.
This crunch clash against Raja Casablanca is another chance for the former Shooting Stars man to shine.
Enyimba have held their nerve to get the results when it mattered most in the Caf Confederation Cup this year, and if they can do the required job this Wednesday, they will be firmly on course for a spot in the final of Africa's secondary club competition.