By Patrick Omorodion
The grass of the Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri will definitely be the worst for it when two compatriots, Heartland Football Club of Owerri and Kano Pillars Football Club clash today in the first leg of the 2009 Orange CAF Champions League semi final.
It is a match that would attr
act football lovers from the length and breadth of the country as both teams battle in the first of four legs in a journey to the mouth-watering $1.5 million prize money for the champions.
It is the second time since 1977 when two Nigerian teams will face each other at the crucial stage of a top continental football tournament. In 1977, then IICC Shooting Stars, as defending champions of the now rested African Winners Cup, battled Rangers of Enugu in the semi final but the Coal City boys parading Christian Chukwu and other top players overwhelmed their Green Eagles mates like Sam Ojebode and Segun Odegbami to cruise into the final and eventually won the trophy.
However in the Champions League, this is the first time in the history of the championship that two clubs from the country are clashing at this stage. Apart from Heartland who have competed in this competition as Iwuanyanwu Nationale when it was still called African Cup Champion Clubs, Pillars are making their debut after emerging champions of the 2008 Glo Premier League.
For both clubs to have advanced to this stage is however a plus for the Nigerian league, rated best in Africa and among the best 25 in the world. And for Pillars to get to this stage in their first attempt, it is feat which must be commended.
Except for fans of both sides in Owerri and Kano, other Nigerians who had prayed for an all Nigerian final would want the better team to win and go on to lift the trophy for the country once again after the double feat of Enyimba of Aba in 2003 and 2004 since one of them is guaranteed a final slot after the two legs.
Technical Adviser of the Owerri side, Kelechi Emeteole, aka Caterpillar, had wanted a clash against Pillars in the final but said since fate brought them together at this stage, they would try and overcome their compatriots and go on to win the cup, even though he agreed it wonâ€™t be an easy task.
â€œWe know each other very well, there is no secret between us, so it is going to be a very tight game. We just hope will overcome them and go ahead to win the cup,â€ he told Metro FM radio in Lagos.
The teamâ€™s Ghanaian import, Azeez Ansah was optimistic of victory while speaking on the same programme too, stressing that Heartland â€œhave a better chance because we are ahead ofv them in the local league. We donâ€™t need to talk too much, weâ€™ll let the pitch do the talking for us.â€
Writing on its website, CAF says â€œ For Pillars, who finished top in Group A ahead of the highly fancied Al-Hilal, (the) game will surely mark their biggest test as the seek to write their name in gold in the history of the premier championship.
Pillars shifted camp to Makurdi to plot strategiesÂ for theÂ clash and seem ready to hand their hosts their first defeat at their backyard.
In striker, Victor Namo, aided by Bello Koformata and Gabriel Ikechukwu, the Kano-based club are expected to give their hosts a run for their money as they seek to claim a convincing result to make the second leg a mere formality.
Pillarsâ€™ Slovenian coach Ivo Sajh is upbeat about the chances of his team, that Heartland can be a barrier to their aspirations of becoming African champions.
â€œWe are back in the knockout stage, which means that it is not just enough for you to win your home game. We therefore have to play a lot better away from home. The players are positive characters and are confident they will go past Heartland on the way to winning the Champions League,â€the Slovenian who replaced Ghanaian Malik Jabir before the commencement of the group phase, told cafonline.com.
In the other semi-final clash in Omdurman, two-time winners T.P. Mazembe will play as guests of Al-Hilal of Sudan. Mazembe, winners in 1967 and 1968 last reached the final of the premier club competition 39 years ago, and are seeking their first continental silverware since claiming the defunct Cup Winnersâ€™ Cup in 1980.