COULD ENYIMBA’S HOME RETURN BOOST NIGERIA’S CONTINENTAL PROSPECTS?

COULD ENYIMBA’S HOME RETURN BOOST NIGERIA’S CONTINENTAL PROSPECTS?

Enyimba are Nigeria’s lone hope of returning to the top 12 of the African football rankings and restoring their two spots for each of CAF’s continental competitions.

Qualification to the quarter finals of the Confederation Cup will earn the country at least 10 points on those rankings, and some daylight from the chasing pack.

It is this, more than anything else, that makes next week’s final group game against group leaders CARA Brazzaville of such vital consequence, not just to the People’s Elephant, but to the other 19 clubs in the NPFL.

As it stands, Enyimba’s win in Mali against Djoliba made them the only team in the group to win away, and took them to nine points and second in the group behind CARA, but only on goals difference.

However, they are by no means safe, as anything but a win against the Congolese heavyweights, could put their chances of progress in jeopardy.

Third-placed Williamsville are on seven points and breathing down Enyimba’s neck. They host the eliminated Djoliba in that final round of games on August 29, and even with a draw, their superior goals difference of zero could still topple the Nigerian side if Enyimba fail to win against CARA.

But win that game, and Enyimba emerge as group winners, and with a fair chance of making it to the semi finals and tacking up another five points to Nigeria’s CAF ranking.

All of this is what makes the club’s return to the Enyimba Stadium such a big deal.

For the last three years, Enyimba have been reduced to living a nomadic existence. Since winning the title in mid 2015, the seven-time Nigeria champions have been deprived of the benefits of home comforts.

With the Enyimba Stadium undergoing renovation, the club first played in Port Harcourt, then moved to Calabar.

That renovation was supposed to last about a year but delays meant it has only been completed this year.

Bongani Khumalo of Bidvest Wits challenges Chinonso Okonkwo of Enyimba Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix

The move has led to a drop-off in results, especially in the first year.

In 2014, and prior to the move, Enyimba romped to the NPFL title, dropping 10 points from five home draws and claiming 14 home wins. They scored 32 goals and let in just nine to win by 70 points.

The year after, when they moved to Port Harcourt, things went pear-shaped.

Those 14 wins dropped to 12. They drew one more home game to lose 12 points at home and only managed 24 goals to lose a whopping 20 points and finish 10th, their lowest league placing since 1999.

On the continent, things were even worse.

While they cantered through the qualifying rounds, the group phase proved testing.

Enyimba opened with an uncharacteristically disastrous home loss to Zamalek and only won one home game, against Mamelodi Sundowns, to finish third and bow out of the tournament.

Things did pick up a year later when they moved to Calabar; Enyimba only dropped four points at home from two draws.

They won 17 home games, and scored 34 goals, two more than their title-winning 2015 season for a pickup of 61 points, 11 more than than the previous season.

Only the blistering form of Plateau United and MFM FC, both of whom won more road games, kept Enyimba from another title.

With just 90 minutes between them and advancement to the knockout stages of the Confederation Cup, a return to their home ground could provide a massive boost both for the club and the country.

The margins could not be finer; CARA need a result to advance, Williamsville can do so with a tie against the eliminated Djoliba, although they are more likely to claim a win at home against the bottom club.

For Enyimba, nothing but a win will do to guarantee progress. The timing of their return to the Enyimba Stadium could not more perfect.

With a new, lush green pitch and newly installed stands along with other facilities, not to mention 25,000 raucous fans who have not seen their home team for the last three years, Enyimba – and the rest of the country – should be confident that the good times are coming back.

Hopefully, it starts on August 29.

Colin Udoh
Football Editor, KweséESPN

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