MFM’s six-nil capitulation in Algiers on Saturday to MC Alger in the CAF Champions League epitomizes their lack of preparation from the outset of this season.
A lack of replacement for their top scorer of last season, Stephen Odey including the departures of Austine Ogunye and Oladele Oshobe meant they had to turn to youngsters like Abayomi Lawal, Elijah Akanni and Nojeem Akinyemi from their nursery.
The club also failed to tie down deals for Remo Stars pair of Victor Mbaoma and Ochowechi Salefu. MFM’s indecisive attitude midway into negotiations with both players allowed Akwa United to snap up free-scoring Mbaoma who would have been a direct replacement for Odey and Ochowechi moved to Rivers United just before the NPFL season began.
MFM’s other influential player Sikiru Olatunbosun was however not registered for the CAF Champions League and that meant that combination of Odey, Olatunbosun and Chukwuka Onuwa which wowed followers of the NPFL last term was already dismantled at the start of this campaign. It was same trio that combined last season to win the CNN Goal of the Week award when Olatunbosun scored that eye-catching goal against Rangers at the Agege Stadium.
Also MFM were unable to register strikers Jesse Akila and Waheed Adebayo amid squabbles over poor welfare from the club by some of the players in recent weeks leading up to the routing in the hands of MC Alger.
Apart from self-inflicted decisions, MFM also had to come up against other factors like the cold weather having arrived just a day before the game. Even Ilechukwu was decked from head to toe with warm clothings on the sidelines. They also had to play in an intimidating arena with 64,000 exuberant fans compared to their 4,000 capacity Agege Stadium.
Like a clairvoyant, Ilechukwu had dropped the hint at the start of this campaign that his team were ill-prepared for the task ahead. It was all too clear in Algeria on Saturday.
MFM’s further undoing can be traced back to the domestic championship where they have only managed three wins in 43 away matches in the NPFL since their debut season in 2016. The performance in Algiers perfectly captures MFM’s woeful form on the road. Even when they finished second last season, they suffered 14 defeats in 19 away games.
So; all of that simply set up the Church Boys as minnows to MC Alger all through the contest. MC Alger’s pace, precision and technique proved far too superior to a tepid display by Ilechukwu’s upstarts.
Four goals in the opening 30 minutes by Sofiane Bendebka, Walid Derreja, Hichem Nekkache and Amir Karaoui made the contest look game, set and match for the Algerian outfit.
Two further goals in the second half from Nekkache and Ibrahim Amada handed Fidelis Ilechukwu and his men a bitter lesson on a cold night in Algiers as they dropped to the playoff of the CAF Confederation Cup.
But MFM’s manner of defeat also captures a long-standing trend of Nigerian clubs finding it difficult to match North African opponents in the past.
BRIEF CHRONICLE OF STRUGGLES AGAINST NORTH AFRICAN OPPONENTS
Nigerian clubs, in the last ten years, have found it difficult to play against North African oppositions. Last year Rivers United and Rangers were dumped out of the CAF Champions League at this same stage by Sudan’s Al-Merrikh and Zamalek of Egypt.
In 2016, Warri Wolves were sent packing in the first round of the CAF Champions League by Al-Merrikh who won 1-0 each over the two legs. Same year in the group stage, Enyimba were beaten in two meetings with Zamalek with 1-0 scorelines to end their outing in that year’s competition.
Three years ago, Enyimba and Kano Pillars were shown the exit doors by North African clubs in the first round of the CAF Champions League. Enyimba lost to Egypt’s Smouha 2-1 on aggregate while Moghreb Tétouan of Morocco progressed at the expense of Kano Pillars 5-2 on aggregate.
Sunshine Stars, in 2012, made it to the group stage where they faced Tunisia’s Esperance and ASO Chlef of Algeria while Etoile du Sahel were disqualified from the CAF Champions League that year. Sunshine Stars lost to Esperance over two meetings but won their two games against ASO Chlef to qualify for the semis. Al Ahly however ended their run in the last four.
A year earlier Kano Pillars failed to progress beyond the first round after they were knocked out by Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca. Same Wydad Casablanca would later stop Enyimba from reaching the final of the 2011 Champions League.
Heartland made it into the group stage of the Champions League in 2010 and were drawn with North African opponents in JS Kabylie of Algeria and Egyptian sides Al Ahly and Ismaily. Heartland finished bottom of the group. They won just a game out of six and lost three.
When Enyimba won their first Champions League title 15 years ago, the People’s Elephant got thrashed 6-1 in the group by Ismaily of Egypt.
DRIFT OF NPFL’S TOP STARS TO NORTH AFRICA
The struggle of Nigerian clubs against their North African counterparts also stretches beyond results on the pitch. The North Africans almost year in, year out have been able to prise away some of the top stars from NPFL clubs once they hit the headlines for eye-catching displays.
The like of Emem Eduok, Peter Ebimobowei, Ighodaro Osaguona, Kingsley Sokari, Chisom Chikatara and Junior Ajayi who excelled in the NPFL in recent years teamed up with North African sides. Eduok moved to Esperance in 2015 and Ebimobowei was pinched off Bayelsa United in same year for impressive performances.
Osaguona from Rangers joined Moroccan side Raja Casablanca, Sokari left Enyimba for CS Sfaxien, ‘Kolanut Boy’ Chikatara pitched tent with Wydad Casablanca and Ajayi after his time at 3SC left for Al Ahly.
Last season’s top scorer Anthony Okpotu also had a spell in Libya with Al-Ittihad who face Akwa United on Sunday in the CAF Confederation Cup and most recently his striking partner at Lobi last term Kingsley Eduwo completed a move to CS Sfaxien of Tunisia.
The North African clubs have used the wide gulf in financial strength between them and their NPFL clubs counterparts to good effect to lure the best players in the domestic championship once they put up superb performances.