Nigeria champions, Enugu Rangers, and league runners-up, Rivers United, will on Sunday have their hands full as they battle two North African sides Zamalek and Al Merreikh for a place in the group stages of the CAF Champions League.
Rangers advanced to the Round of 32 after edging out Algerian side JS Saoura on the away goal rule. They played a 1-1 draw in Algeria before playing a barren draw at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu, two weeks ago.
Rivers booked a place in the Round of 32 against Al Merreikh following their victory over Malian side, AS Real Bamako over two legs. They played a goalless draw in Bamako before completing the job with a 4-0 win at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium, Port Harcourt a fortnight ago.
On Sunday, coach Imama Amapakabo will lead his team out against Zamalek in Egypt while coach Stanley Eguma will be seeking a win as Rivers team host Sudanese side Al Merreikh.
The winner of the ties over two legs will book a place in the new 16-team format of the Champions League while the losers will battle for a place in the play offs of the CAF Confederation Cup for a place in its group stages.
With Nigerian teams not faring well on the continent in recent times, the two teams will hope to prove themselves worthy of the country’s ticket as the two other teams representing the country on the continent – Wikki and IfeanyiUbah – have crashed out of the Confederation Cup. Wikki lost on aggregate to little-known Sierra Leone side RSLAF while IfeanyiUbah lost on penalties to Egyptian side Al Masry.
The Premier League champions Rangers have more experience in continental football than Rivers and will hope it will be brought to bear on their game against Zamalek, who are also experienced in the competition. However, it is another tough pairing for the Flying Antelopes, who are currently struggling in the league. They sit 17th in the table with 12 points from 10 matches.
The Egyptian side are favourites against Rangers having won the competition five times – in 1984, 1986, 1993, 1996, 2002 – and finishing as runners-up in 1994 and 2016. They lost the title to South Africa side, Mamelodi Sundowns, last year and will be seeking to reclaim the title with a win over the Nigerian champions. Zamalek are currently third in the Egyptian Premier League with 40 points from 19 matches.
But the Flying Antelopes, led by current club administrator, Christian Chukwu, were finalists in the Champions League in 1975, before winning the African Cup Winners Cup two years later. They also reached the semi-finals of the competition twice as well as the group stage of the Confederation Cup in 2004. However, the champions will be wary of Zamalek knowing that the White Knights defeated another Enyimba, home and away in the group phase last season.
For Rivers United, who are doing better on the domestic scene than Rangers, they sit 12th in the league with 14 points from 10 matches but have no continental experience since their creation last year.
They are up against a Sudanese team, who have not won the Champions League but have appeared 19 times in the competition. Al Merriekh’s best outing in the competition is a semi-final finish in 2015. Boasting of three Nigerians in their ranks – Kunle Odunlami, Kelechi Osunwa (who is the all-time highest goal scorer in the Arabian leagues with 36 goals) and Solomon Jabason – Al Merriekh currently sit 12th in the Sudani Premier League with seven points from four matches.
Former Nigeria international, Garba Lawal, said the teams must take their chances against the North Africans when they get them.
“North African teams – both national and club sides – are always tough nuts to crack for the other teams on the continent. They have a peculiar style of football which is quite difficult to break,” he told our correspondent.
“The best way to beat them is for our teams to take their chances and defend as a unit. There is hardly room for mistakes against them because they will punish you for it. The two coaches – Eguma and Amapakabo – are experienced so they will know the best tactics to apply for their games.”
But former Super Eagles midfielder, Friday Ekpo, said the inexperience of Rivers’ players may count against them while Rangers’ match against JS Saoura would assist in playing against Zamalek.
He said, “Most of the Rivers players are playing continental football for the first time and it will be difficult for them to have mastered the rigour of playing domestic and continental matches in the space of a week.
“This might affect their performance but they need to pay as a unit against the North Africans for them to progress to the next stage. Rangers look more likely to give their best against Zamalek because they would have learnt from their first round encounter with another North African side.”