BY SAMMY WEJINYA
Touted for big things after a sparkling victory over Malian club, AS Real Bamako in the preliminary round of the CAF Champions League, the ‘Pride of Rivers’ made Nigerians believe they could dare to dream.
Comparisons were even drawn with the legendary Enyimba sides of 2003 and 2004 after United tore the form books to shreds by outclassing Sudanese giants, Al Merreikh 3-0 in the first leg of their first round CAF Champions League clash in Port Harcourt.
Then came implosion as the wheels came off spectacularly for the Nigerian flag bearers in Africa’s elite club competition.
In a cauldron of hate and noise (the Al Merreikh Stadium in Omdurman), United’s stars failed to deal with the pressure of playing in front of over 70,000 vociferous Al Merreikh fans as they suffered a 0-4 reverse.
The dream was over; heads dropped as many were left to ponder what might have been.
Confidence levels were at their lowest ebb and Rivers United was in free fall with the nadir exemplified by three consecutive defeats in domestic competition (against MFM, Enyimba and Gombe United); the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).
Then came the revival as the Port Harcourt club sought to rise from the ashes, like the proverbial Phoenix, in all its glory with hard-fought but extremely crucial league wins against ABS FC and Abia Warriors.
Technical manager of United, Azunda Stanley Eguma smiled like the cat that ate the canary as he took the time to review the wins which seemingly set things up quite nicely ahead of Sunday’s big game against Rayon Sports.
“We have suffered so much in the past months but as an extremely experienced coach, I know that football is like life; it is full of ups and downs.
“It is important to finally get back to winning ways as it helps build confidence.
“Now, we will (ride on that momentum) and try to get a good result against Rayon Sports who are a very good side,” he told the club’s official website, www.riversunitedfc.com.ng.
How will Rayon play in Port Harcourt? Rayon Sports Football Club (nicknamed Gikundiro) is the second most successful football club in Rwanda, after Army club, APR who have 16 league titles to their name.
The Nyanza club (Rayon Sports FC) have claimed seven league titles and are poised to collect an eighth as they are currently runaway leaders in this season’s Rwanda National Football League.
Gikunduro have lost just once in their first 22 games of the season are currently 11 points clear of second-placed bitter rivals, APR.
Rayon Sports, a fluid-playing, attack-minded side is largely built around three players; striker, Nshuti Dominique Savio, midfielder, Moussa Camara and playmaker extraordinaire, Pierrot Kwizera who is from Burundi.
Pierrot is the heart and soul of the side; the midfield anchor on who most of the positive play of the side is anchored.
His vision, low centre of gravity, silky touches and quickness of thought makes him slippery as an eel and almost impossible to mark.
Savio is a speed star and poacher of deadly efficiency while Camara is capable of moments of magic.
Rayon are also extremely dangerous from set pieces and the United players will be wise to avoid giving away free kicks in and around their penalty area.
Head coach of Rayon Sports, Masudi Djuma is optimistic of his side’s progress to the group stage but the Burundian tactician knows the importance of claiming a positive result in the first leg in Port Harcourt.
“It is a very big game for us. We are in Nigeria to try to get a draw at least.
“We know a draw is going to help us (in our quest to reach the group stages) by the time we play the second leg in Rwanda.
“Actually, we want to win but even a draw will help us in the second leg.
“Rivers United, I agree, are not doing well domestically but no two games are the same.
“The Confederation Cup is a completely different competition from the Nigerian league.
“Rivers can lift their game on Sunday and surprise everyone. We cannot think too much against Rivers United’s poor form in their league (the Nigeria Professional Football League) because it will be a fatal mistake.
“An example is Leicester City in England; they are not doing well in the Premier League but have reached the quarter final of the Uefa Champions League.
“They (Leicester City) beat Sevilla from Spain and Sevilla is a very good team that played very well (in both legs of the round of 16 tie).
“Positions in the domestic league is not important; what is important is concentration, determination and setting clear the objective you want to achieve on the day,” he said.
On Sunday, two sides with slightly contrasting football philosophies will clash at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium, Port Harcourt with the objective of reaching the group stage of Africa’s second-tier club competition. Clearly, something has to give.