Akwa United’s difficult mission in their maiden Caf Champions League season

The Promise Keepers begin their quest for glory among Africa’s elite.

After 25 years of existence, Akwa United rightly deserve the NPFL title

It was a season to remember for Akwa United in 2020-21 as they were crowned Nigeria Professional Football League champions for the first time in their history, finishing five points clear of Enyimba.

So dominant were these men that they went on a 18-game unbeaten run, losing just five times all season which was the least for a champion. The Promise Keepers equally scored the most goals of the campaign (53) and conceded the least (24), not forgetting they raked in the second most points (20) on the road.

It was simply a breath-taking performance from United, a performance that in some regard, set them apart from previous champions that include seven-time winners, Enyimba.

Akwa’s title triumph stands apart because it was their first time, but of course they’ve been building momentum towards it, first finishing fourth in 2017 and then a near second in 2018’s abruptly-ended league to finishing top of their group in 2019’s abridged league, scoring most goals (32) in the division.

The Uyo-based outfit’s biggest reward in all this progress is securing a berth in the upcoming Caf Champions League for the very first time in their history. They take on Algerian champions CR Belouizdad at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium for a start and it promises to be a cracker.

Akwa’s first foray into continental football came in 2016 when they qualified for the Caf Confederation Cup by winning the 2015 Federation Cup after seeing off Lobi Stars 2-1. They also made it into the second tier African club competition two years after by winning the Federation Cup again in 2017, this time defeating Niger Tornadoes on penalties after a goalless 90 minutes.

In the 2016 Confed Cup campaign, United were knocked out in the preliminary round by Congolese club Vita Club Mokanda 6-5 on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate scoreline across two legs. In the 2018 season, they did better by getting past Banjul Hawks of Gambia and Libyan side Al-Ittihad Tripoli before being stopped by Sudanese powerhouse Al-Hilal on away goals in the final qualification round before the group phase.

Not the best of performances, but the Akwa Ibom state capital club boasted of quality players and they need to do much better this time around.

It won’t come easy this time in the Champions League against an Algerian opponent. CR Belouizdad are reigning Ligue 1 champions, finishing eight points clear of ES Setif, winning 22 games from 38 matches and losing three times. It was their eighth league title having won in 2019-20, the first time they won back-to-back titles since 1999-2000 and 2000-01.

In fact, all of Belouizdad’s league crowns have been back-to-back (1964–65 and 1965–66, 1968–69 and 1969–70).

Akwa United are also somewhat at a disadvantage as they have lost some of their key players from last season’s success that includes joint top scorer Charles Atshiemene, Olisa Ndah, Ikechukwu Nwani, Etim Matthew and David Essien. Though they’ve reacted by bringing in 11 new players that include Godspower Aniefiok, Wasiu Alalade, Isaac George, Evans Ogbonda, Austin Osayande, Ezekiel Bassey and others. There’s no guarantee they’d gel immediately especially as they are just getting familiar with their surroundings with a few preseason games under their belt.

It might not be all hope lost then as coach Kennedy Boboye still has quality players at hisdisposal that includes NPFL all-time top scorer Mfon Udoh, who was also the top marksman in the Champions League during the 2016 season with nine goals. There’s also Adewale Adeyinka,

Samson Gbadebo, Seth Mayi, Friday Ubong and Phillip David, all key men from last season still within the walls of Uyo.

CR Belouizdad shouldn’t be the ideal opponent a Nigerian champion should be facing at this stage of the competition. Both the Algeria Ligue 1 and NPFL are ranked fifth and eighth respectively in Africa. This means they should be getting opponents lower down the rankings during the qualifiers, but it is what it is.

One can blame Caf for such a tough pairing, but Akwa United must brace up for it. Nigeria has not had a participant in the Champions League group phase since 2016 when Enyimba failed to qualify out of it. Since then, it’s been either preliminary exits or drops to the Confederation Cup.

As far as Champions League success is concerned, Enyimba were the last side to taste it in 2004 while Heartland were the last team to make it to the final in 2009 but they lost to DR Congo giants TP Mazembe.

Just as Akwa United were different in the NPFL last term, they’ve got to do likewise in theChampions League. Playing first at home gives them a massive advantage, hence they must make it count. Should they fail to do that, CR Belouizdad will be the ones smiling knowing they can finish the job off with ease in the return leg in Algiers.

It’s now or never for the Promise Keepers.

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Kunle is an avid writer with interest in topics on sports, politics and health. His articles have featured in Goal.com, Opera News and Vanguard News. He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in International Relations and is an advocate for people living with Hydrocephalus and other neurological conditions.

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