Mountain of Fire FC and Plateau United headed into the second leg of their First Round Caf Champions League ties against MC Alger and Etoile du Sahel this past weekend in difficult but salvageable situations.
The Olukoya Boys held a slender 2-1 lead from first leg in the Agege Stadium, while the Peace Boys had a 4-2 deficit from Stade Olympique de Sousse to overturn. MFM’s job would be to try and prevent Alger from scoring while getting a goal themselves, while for Kenny Boboye’s side, they needed to win at least 2-0 to make it into the Champions League group phase.
Nothing, however, went according to the script as MFM were pounded 6-0 in front of a 64,000 crowd at the Stade 5 Juliet 1962 in Algiers, while Plateau could only win 1-0 at a sunny Sanni Abacha Stadium in Kano.
Although both clubs have dropped to the Caf Confederation Cup, ensuring their continental campaign continues, their exit at the final hurdle before making it into the Champions League group stage was confirmation that neither were good enough to be in the competition's latter stages.
Scaling past Eding Sport and Real Bamako in the earlier round might have been an easy pass for Plateau United and MFM but both were exposed when the sterner tests came.
These were definitely the biggest games in their history.
With the Olukoya Boys missing Sikiru Olatunbosun, Adebayo Waheed and Jesse Akilla – who have been key players for them in the NPFL this term, due to failed player registration – the Lagos-based side were not as threatening as they should have been.
For the Peace Boys, conceding three goals in the opening eight minutes in Sousse was the beginning of their misery even though they responded with two goals in the closing 20 minutes of the game.
The fact that both clubs were making their debut in the competition, and facing sides with vast experience, meant that they could not respond appropriately to the tight situations they found themselves in.
The Confederation Cup offers another opportunity for Plateau United and Mountain of Fire FC to show what they can offer on the continental stage, but they may also have to go toe to toe with some experienced sides after the likes of Supersport United, USM Alger, Al-Masry, Raja Casablanca, Al-Hilal Club and ASEC Mimosas all reached the playoff round.
Perhaps the struggles of the nation's teams in continental competition can be explained by the unpredictability of the NPFL. Different champions and runners-up have been produced in recent seasons, meaning that teams rarely get consistent opportunities to test themselves agaisnt Africa's best.
Similarly, Nigeria's team still don't treat the tournament with the same respect and reverence as some of their North African counterparts. MFM failed to register key players for the tournament, while Plateau failed to get their home stadium in Jos up to Caf standards meaning that they didn't enjoy the same home advantage that they otherwise might have done.
Until this changes, the country might struggle to produce sides that will be able to take on Africa’s best.