A carnival-like atmosphere was witnessed inside the Agege stadium on Sunday, Akwa United have just been crowned 2017 champions of the rebranded Nigeria Federation Cup – the Aiteo Cup. The Akwa Ibom state government sponsored club celebrated their second cup triumph in three years after they defeated Niger Tornadoes 3-2 on penalties, the match finished goalless after regulation time. Sunday night’s victory did not only see them pocket 25 million Naira in prize money for winning the cup, it also guaranteed their place in next season’s CAF Confederation Cup.
But amidst the fireworks and wild celebration that was on show inside the Agege stadium, anyone who watched that game would note it wasn’t a spectacle save for the fireworks. Notwithstanding, Akwa United head into familiar territory of representing Nigeria on the continent. But how can the Promise Keepers improve on a memorable 2016/2017 season? Here’s how.
Keep the core of this current set of players
News of how Nigerian clubs chop and change players annually has become a phenomenon one could be forgiven to think it’s only peculiar to clubs in the country. Ahead of a new season, professional clubs in Nigeria release an average of 15-20 players, supporters can only hope Akwa United management doesn’t toe that line especially if they are to lose key components of the squad.
The club have already witnessed sales of Moses Ebiye and influential midfield engine Alhassan Ibrahim last season, a move not many of their admirers were too pleased with. It is understandable Nigerian clubs can’t match the take home of players when compared to their counterparts in Europe, but they can show ambition of aiming to challenge elite clubs in Africa which will to some extent guarantee player safety culminating into improved wages.
Hero of the cup final Ojo Olorunleke, defender Emmanuel Ariwachukwu and midfielders Ifeanyi Ifeanyi and Afeez Aremu over the course of last season where the mainstays of the Promise Keepers and to some extent Musa Newman too. The trio of Ariwachukwu, Ifeanyi and Aremu were part of Nigeria’s WAFU Cup team who lost in the final to host Ghana, thus have been exposed to scouts all over the world of their talent with the latter two having trained with the senior Super Eagles team in recent times. At some point last season, striker Christian Pyagbara was said to have sort for pastures anew in Europe, though nothing concrete materialised.
More tempting offers will come to test the resolve of the club management into selling, but the club’s management led by the experienced Paul Bassey must tread with caution if he be forced to disintegrate the core of the team who have earned the status of being everyone’s favourite second club.
Also, lessons must be learnt from previous campaigns of clubs who represented Nigeria in CAF club competitions. Memories of Rangers International’s dismal CAF Champions League campaign remains fresh in mind, not forgetting Enyimba and Rivers United’s struggles of combining both playing in the league and on the continent with the later only surviving league relegation on the penultimate matchday of last season.
Temptations of making wholesale changes to the squad which leads to coaches not knowing their strongest eleven thick into the new season must be avoided too.
Strategically plan for life on the continent
Qualifying for continental club football can be a bittersweet experience for Nigerian clubs. Enyimba’s consecutive CAF champions league triumph in 2003 and 2004; Sunshine Stars’ semi-final finish in both the Confederation Cup and Champions League in 2011 and in 2012 and Heartland’s loss in the final of 2009 are a few recent moments NPFL clubs can point at as a feel of an achievement Nigerian clubs can boast of on the continent. Mirrored with the struggles of Rangers International, Wikki Tourist, FC Ifeanyi Ubah, Dolphins and surprise surprise Akwa United as recently as in 2015 when they were knocked out in the preliminary round of the CAF Confederation Cup by Congolese side Vita Club Mokanda despite having held a 1-0 first-leg advantage going into the second-leg tie at home. They eventually lost 0-1 at home and 6-5 on penalties, thus were knocked out less than five months after they celebrated their Federation Cup triumph and the opportunity to play continental football.
Of those mentioned failed attempts by NPFL clubs on the continent, the free fall of 2016 league Champions Rangers stands out as internal ramblings and eventual sacking of title-winning coach Imama Amapakabo derailed a season that showed promise.
Combining both continental football and the NPFL have not been easy for Nigerian club’s to joggle both, Akwa United must give themselves realistic targets and lay down proper plans to booth. Talk of disagreements in player bonuses and shady logistical planning must be straightened out else they stand a risk of not only disgracing their sponsors, but Nigerians on Africa’s second tier club competition.
Do not lose Abdu Maikaba
Famed for creating team’s who play their football on the ground and s coach brings out the best in his players, Akwa United technical adviser Abdu Maikaba’s stock seem to be bursting through the ceiling at the moment.
Wikki Tourist and in particular 2016 league top scorer Godwin Obaje can attest to how Maikaba transformed him into a goal machine and on a larger scale, how he implemented his philosophy of playing tiki-taka football which yielded fruit in the Bauchi based club finishing 4th and 3rd in his two seasons in charge of the club, which ended after he qualified Wikki Tourist for the CAF Confederation Cup by virtue of that third place finish.
Maikaba has not taken long to show what he has become famous for, if you’ve seen Akwa United play under the former Kano Pillars assistant coach you’d agree his team’s showing in the Aiteo Cup final was an anomaly. He has gradually imprinted his Barcelona-esque style of playing the beautiful game on Akwa United despite having endured a rough start to his reign.
Players like Aremu who suffered from an apparent distrust at his old club Rivers United is now on the cusp of making his Super Eagles debut, not forgetting the brilliant Alhassan who was a joy to watch in the NPFL before his move to Austria Wien in Austria.
Rumours of Maikaba taking up a national team job have been mooted, but Akwa United need not lose a coach as good as the former Wikki Tourist technician thereby opting to start all over from scratch. Though it is not certain if he’ll leave, but appointments like that of former Rangers coach Amapakabo and Super Eagles assistant Salisu Yusuf who got the plum job after his exploits in the local league is a trend Akwa United must be wary of. If Akwa United are to continue their rise in Nigerian league football from a mid-table, relegation threatened side to title challengers they must keep Abdu Maikaba.