There was much frenzy ahead of Enyimba’s final Caf Confederation Cup Group C tie with CARA Brazzaville this week, as they were returning to their home in Aba after almost three years of seeking temporary shelter in Port Harcourt and Calabar.
Sure, it felt good, and it was expected that they’d make a statement of intent from the get go, which they did, but none of their early efforts were converted to goals.
Despite having 60% possession at halftime, only three shots were on target from a total of 14, while CARA had zero.
The two notable chances that came in the opening half, from Farouk Mohammed – the hero from the late 1-0 win over Djoliba in Bamako last time out, and a shot from captain Mfon Udoh towards half-time – failed to threaten CARA goalie Chansel Massa.
The two-time Caf Champions League winners increased the tempo in the second half, and Massa was alert to clear the dangerous balls that came his way.
I didn't give Djoliba a chance against Williamsville but when Enyimba was struggling to breakdown CARRA, I hoped Djiloba held on for us .— Nnanna O Kalu (@NnannaOKalu) August 29, 2018
Then Mfon and Alalade happened late on.
Congratulations Enyimba FC.
Udoh was a threat from set pieces all evening, and his fierce effort with 11 minutes of regular time left bounced off the frame of the post and, though it appeared to cross the line, replays showed it did not.
With a minute of additional time left, the Nigeria Professional Football League all-time top scorer whipped in another free kick that cannoned off the crossbar, but this time, substitute Wasiu Alalade was there to put the rebound into the back of the net.
It sent the Enyimba Stadium into raptures, with fans invading the new pitch after the referee blew the final whistle for a 1-0 victory.
What a moment!!!!!!!!!!!— Enyimba FC (@EnyimbaFC) August 29, 2018
The result means that the seven-time Nigerian champions topped Group C with 12 points while CARA Brazzaville also went through as Williamsville were held to a goalless draw by Djoliba in Abidjan.
Enyimba qualify for the Caf Confederation Cup knockout round for the first time ever, and as group winners will face either DR Congo side AS Vita Club, Rwandan outfit Rayon Sports or Egyptian powerhouse Al-Masry in a fortnight after the draw on September 3, 2018.
1. Win - Top of table and into the next round.— ThatEnyimbaFan (@EnyimbaEnyi) August 29, 2018
2. Mfon Udoh goodness.
3. Back home.
It's a proud day to be an Enyimba Faithful
They represent much tougher opponents; AS Vita won all their group games at home and managed to nick a point away to Group A winners Raja Casablanca.
Rayon Sports were the best away side in the group phase having managed to earn draws at Tanzanian side Young Africans and Algerian giants USM Alger while claiming a big win at the base of Kenyan heavyweights Gor Mahia.
Enyimba will be hoping that they are not pitted against Al-Masry, as they could be the toughest of the lot.
The nine-time Egyptian Premier League runners-up narrowly missed out on finishing top of Group B, just one point behind Moroccans RS Berkane. They were, however, the only side to go the entire group stage unbeaten, winning three and drawing three of their six games.
Wasiu Alalade's late winner is the first goal to be scored at the Enyimba Stadium since October 2015 when Chinedu Udoji (RIP) scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over Kwara United. Remembrance. #ENYCAR #CAFCC— Opta Nigeria (@OptaNGR) August 29, 2018
Though Enyimba deserved to go through, they were not the most impressive in Group C.
CARA Brazzaville and Williamsville showed more grit, determination and desire than they did, but football is a game of chance, and luck and does not necessarily mean the better team will progress.
Manchester United, for example, tasted victory in just five of the 13 games en route to the 1998/99 Uefa Champions League final, which they won to cement an unpresented treble, often coming from behind during their five wins.
Enyimba need to show more determination, need to be more lethal in the final third, and must convert their chances early enough. Failing to do this could be costly in the knockouts.
They do have the joy of returning to their traditional home, but they'll be keen for the NPFL to resume soon so that Usman Abdallah’s men can have some competitive fixtures under their belt.
Enyimba's preparation and finishing must improve if their run in the competition is to continue beyond the quarters.