Defensive horror show condemns Lobi Stars to Caf Champions League exit

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The Pride of Benue needed to get a result in Pretoria to stand a chance of qualification, but their defensive failings were exposed...again

Putting in a fine defensive performance to draw at Wydad Casablanca in February was arguably Lobi Stars' best result of the Caf Champions League group phase.

Indeed, their resiliency at the back gave them a glimmer of hope that they could progress, but the bigger task was doing what they had not managed to do in the elite competition: win away from home.

Solomon Ogbeide’s men needed to beat Mamelodi Sundowns at Loftus Versfeld to approach their final game at home to ASEC Mimosas in confident mood.

However, the Brazilians had other ideas, and took the lead just two minutes in through Thapelo Morena. The defensive sturdiness that had been evident in Morocco completely deserted Stars when it mattered most.

Sundowns Lobi scoreline PS

Sundowns pushed to increase their lead, but Lobi’s best player in the Champions League, Olufemi Kayode, made an acrobatic save, punching out a diving header from Gaston Sirino that was bound for the net.

The second and third goals were scored in the space of one minute by Themba Zwane and Lebohang Maboe after a defensive lapse in concentration from the Nigerians.

With such a comfortable lead, Masandawana decided to take their foot off the gas a bit, and this allowed Lobi Stars to have more of the ball in the second half.

However, they did little to show that they wanted to claw their way back into the contest by any means necessary.

Instead, it was the 2016 Champions League winners who looked like scoring, and the hosts almost added a fourth in the 88th minute, only for the superb Kayode to deny them.

The 3-0 victory for Pitso Mosimane’s side means they progress to the quarter-finals, while Lobi's prospects of reaching the knockouts have officially been ended, as they remain on four points from five games.

The final game against ASEC in Enugu will be inconsequential, as Wydad - who currently occupy second place - have a better head-to-head record than the Nigerians.

The remaining battle in the ‘Group of Death’ is thus for second place, between ASEC Mimosas and Wydad Casablanca. The Ivorians can’t finish higher than second as they trail in the head-to-head against the Moroccans and South Africans, and will need to go for the jugular against Stars while hoping Wydad don't beat Downs.

Should the Brazilians avoid losing in Rabat, they will guarantee top spot.

Ultimately, Stars' performance has vindicated pre-tournament concerns that their lack of experience would tell at this level. They ought to still deserve immense credit in some quarters for dispatching USM de Loum and Gor Mahia to progress to the group stage.

Ogbeide deserves credit in overseeing Stars' qualification to the group stage - making them the first Nigerian side to do it since two-time champions Enyimba in 2016 - but they were always facing an uphill struggle to progress from a pool containing three previous winners.

Tellingly, they've failed to score since their opening 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Sundowns. It remains the high watermark of their campaign.

Again, poor defending has cost them, while a lack of link-up between midfield and attack has also been a characteristic of their five matches to date.

The last Nigerian side to make it out of the Champions League group phase was Sunshine Stars seven years ago, and this was achieved with grit, determination and sheer luck. There was none of this for Lobi.

For a side who made some big recruits before the elite competition kicked off, the best player has been keeper Kayode, despite conceding six goals. However, this failing, too, ought to be placed at the feet of a sleepy defence.

Lobi Stars head coach Solomon Ogbeide.

Stars were arguably out of their depth throughout their continental campaign, and can now go back to focusing on domestic duties. They currently languish 11th in their Nigeria Professional Football League group, although it's worth noting that they have five outstanding matches to play.

There’s a lot of catching up to do, but if they can push their way back to the top and make the league playoffs, another continental berth would be sealed.

Either way, Stars will have learned some tough lessons from their time among the continent's elite.

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