BY APESIN ADEMOLA.
Going into their second group stage experience in the CAF Champions League, Lobi Stars will carry the heavy weight of a nation long denied glory in that elite competition – and indeed in all continental club competitions.
The last time a Nigerian club delivered an African trophy was 14 years ago when Enyimba successfully defended the CAF Champions League, whose jinx the Orji Uzor Kalu-inspired team had broken for the country the previous season.
In reaching the group stage this time, Lobi Stars became only the fifth Nigerian side to land in that lucrative section of the competition in 10 years.
Heartland and Kano Pillars clashed in the semi final of the 2009 edition with the former smashing their compatriots 5-0 aggregate, but losing the showpiece double-header 2-2 on away goal rule to DR Congo’s TP Mazembe.
Two of Lobi Stars’ group stage opponents had stopped Nigerian teams in the last decade in the competition.
In 2011, Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca eliminated Enyimba 1-0 aggregate in the semi-finals; a double jeopardy for Nigeria whose other entry in that competition Kano Pillars had lost to the same Moroccan team 2-0 in the first round.
On their way to the semifinal however, Enyimba had kicked Wydad’s city rivals Raja Casablanca out of the tournament in the group stage.
Mamelodi Sundowns, the South African club that Lobi Stars will host to start their group stage campaign, won the group in which Enyimba finished third in 2016. Enyimba lost the first leg 1-2- in Pretoria and won 3-1 in Port Harcourt, the only victory for the People’s Elephant at the group stage.
Sunshine Stars reached the semi-finals in 2012 but lost to a north African opposition, eventual champions Al-Ahly 4-3.
Ivorien’s ASEC Mimosas are yet to encounter any Nigerian team in the CAF Champions League in the last decade. Now Lobi Stars will come their way.
In the ongoing campaign, Lobi eliminated Cameroon’s UMS de Loum 2-1 aggregate at the preliminary stage, and Gor Mahia 3-3 on away goal rule in the first round to qualify for the group stage.
The Pride of Benue or Ortom Boys, as Lobi Stars are known, have concluded plans to acquire players in preparation for the Champions League group stage as well as the defence of their domestic league title.
Club vice chairman Mike Idoko said that the technical crew had identified the critical holes to be plugged in the team.
“We are thankful to God for allowing us to scale through to the group stage of the CAF Champions League. We have got one of the hurdles out of the way and we are glad that has been settled,” he told Goal.
“We are going to do a lot before the start of the group stage including registering four new players. We have got the input of the technical crew and we are working on ensuring that we get the players that they have asked for.”
Lobi Stars will start the group stage in a fortnight hosting Mamelodi Sundowns, the same weekend that Wydad Casablanca will play ASEC Mimosas at home in the same group.