By: Ben Nwachukwu, Abuja
The abrupt end of the Nigeria Professional Football League with 14 matches still to play, raised questions about Lobi Stars’ worthiness to represent Nigeria in the 2018/19 Caf Champions League, moreover, when the country’s slot slipped from two to one.
The Stars from Benue kick off their campaign against Sundowns at home on January 11, even when there is still uncertainty surrounding the kick off date of the country’s elite league Nigeria Professional Football League organized by the League Management Company (LMC). Nevertheless, in the midst of all the debate, the governor Samuel Ortom sponsored team have shown substantial clench by eliminating the duo of UMS de Loum and Gor Mahia to reach the group phase.
It was obvious that the Coach Solomon Ogbeide tutored outfit would be potholed in a very sturdy group, as they were among the base seeds. They were eventually drawn alongside former champions Wydad Casablanca, Mamelodi Sundowns and ASEC Mimosas in Group A.
This is the toughest group of the foursome, as all three teams are former Champions League winners; Wydad in 1992 and 2017, Sundowns in 2016, while ASEC in 1998.
This is Lobi’s second attempt in participating in the continent’s highest clubs competition, and they have never gone beyond the group. They finished third behind eventual champions Accra Hearts of Oak and Al Ahly of Egypt in 2000.
18 years after, with things evolving subsequently, but not seem to appear any easier for the Stars, they are on it again and right in a group of death.
It is not just about the fact that Wydad, Sundowns and ASEC are former African champions, there is this domineering factor they posses on their domestic scenes the record number of league titles. In Morocco Wydad have 19, Sundown have won South African league trophy a record 8 times and Ivory Coast league trophy has rested in Mimosas 26 times.
They also boast of intercontinental players, and each symbolizes diverse, intimidating projection for Stars.
Undoubtedly, Stars are small fry, but they may savor this status as they look to counterfeit some CCL narration.
If anything, a sense of determination and hard work could make the Stars an unexpected success in the competition. Coach Ogbeide has consistently spoken of how prepared his team are to tackle the Champions League and prove doubting Thomases wrong that the Benue Stars participation, even not as official league champions, is deserved.
With the likes of Sikiru Alimi, who already has three strikes to his name in the elite competition and other new recruits, there is a lot to be hopeful about.
The mood of the camp should also have improved with the financial boost of playing in the group stage where massive $550,000 (almost 200 million Naira) could be all theirs mainly considering how funds are scarcely generated by Nigerian clubs and players poorly remunerated.
Nevertheless, NPFL Champions have their work cut out and must learn rapidly how to exploit their home advantage and develop a strategy to trouble their more well-known opponents away from home. With a seasoned football club manager Mike Idoko on board of the Makurdi based club, it will not be difficult for the Stars to replicate their performance in the preliminary stage that saw off highly revered Gor Mahia and paved way for them in the group stage.
Lobi Stars must have it at the back of their minds that their performance in the CCL will go a long way to reposition the country’s clubs in CAF’s time table.