By Toyin Akiode
It is now history that one of Nigeria’s representatives in the CAF Champions League, Rivers United have been knocked out of the competition. Their exit wasn’t the painful aspect but the manner in which the defeat came.
Rivers United defeated their Sudanese opponent, Al-Merrikh by three goals to nothing in the first leg in Port Harcourt and hearts were strengthened that the tie is as good as won. Nobody, I repeat; nobody bargained for the capitulation witnessed within the first 45 minutes. Bakri Al Madina scored a hat trick in the first half to level the result on aggregate and by so doing opened up an opportunity for the Riverians to go for the broke.
In this type of game that is set on a balance and away from home; a goal becomes critical. All united needed was one but they couldn’t manage it and are therefore now consigned to less illustrious companies in the Confederation Cup play-offs. It was like the case of the man who had the key to a house but gave it away to a stranger on a push.
As the dust settles on this unfortunate outcome, the motivation is ever burning to understand the reasons behind River United’s lackluster performance in Sudan.
News had filtered in before kickoff on Social Media that the bus conveying the Nigerians was attacked by the home fans who saw the opportunity of the encounter as their main gateway into the pinnacle of African Club Football. While that was disheartening and arguably frightening; it should have served to strengthen the resolve of our team to carry the day.
From the way United played in the first half, it was as if they were afraid of their opponents. And in football, that is a sure way to get fried!
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Sensing the tentativeness of the Nigerians, Al-Merrikh poured forward in waves upon waves of attacks until United crumbled in quick successions in the first half and totally left the initiative in the match to their hosts. Coach Stanley Eguma must have been shell-shocked to see the ‘massive lead’ gained in the first leg evaporate into thin air by the suddenly resurgent Sudanese.
The key lesson here is that there are two aspects to this game and both must be mastered to actually triumph. First and visible is the physical game. This involves the team set-up, tactics, patterns, philosophy, anchor players etc. The second and even more important is the psychological frame-work aptly tagged ‘winning mentality’. It is the core of any team that really wants to dominate and win matches.
We see this day-in, day-out in the Premiership where certain teams who on the balance of paly shouldn’t win go ahead to do that. They have managed to have it engrained that winning is their right and at critical moments in matches, they go ahead and do that irrespective of the circumstance or the statistics.
It was the psychological aspect of the game that did Rivers United in against Al-Marrikh. The attack on their bus, while detestable and irresponsible should have kicked them a gear up towards ensuring they qualify for the group phase of CAF Champions League. All said, the hope remains that lessons have been learnt and the trajectory is only up from now.