Such has been their play on the continent that Enyimba have seemingly been on a collision course with their third CAF Champions League title, having won Africa’s foremost club competition in 2003 and 2004. One of the major reasons for this has been the goals of 25-year-old striker Uche Kalu, who scored four times in the group stage and has been a major thorn in the side of every opposition as Enyimba went through their first 11 matches in the competition unbeaten. However, after losing the first leg of the semi-final 1-0 at Wydad Casablanca of Morocco, Kalu and the Aba-based team are now desperate to overturn that result for a place in the final.
Kalu, who bagged a brace away at Coton Sport of Cameroon and scored home goals against Al Hilal and Raja Casablanca, has fired 15 goals in all competitions for the Nigerian champions this season, and he has promised to score two goals in the return leg on Sunday to ensure ‘The People’s Elephant’ keep their dream alive of a continental treble.
“I have the task of nailing Wydad with at least two goals,” offered the enterprising striker, whose two older brothers also played the game but not at the highest level. “It won’t be easy, but we are fired up to make a name for ourselves and make Nigeria proud. We also want to feature at the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time.”
A star is rising
A fortnight ago, Kalu was the lone ranger, isolated up front as his club adopted very defensive tactics that had three central defenders giving extra cover to goalkeeper Paul Godwin. At the Enyimba International Stadium in Aba, which this south-eastern Nigerian club have made their fortress, it will most certainly be a very different style as Kalu and his club go for broke against the 1992 champions.
When attacking, Enyimba utilise two wingers - typically the gifted Josiah Maduabuchi and tricky Philip Auta - to service Kalu and either young striker Ifeanyi Ede or the more experienced Junior Osagie. Former Club Africain of Tunisia ace, Osagie has been struggling with injury, but he has rejoined the team for the must-win contest against a team who accounted for another Nigerian club, Kano Pillars, in the Round of 32 of this same competition. His experience would certainly rub off on Kalu in a match expected to come with all the pressure of a cup final.
Uche Kalu, not to be mistaken with Nigerian international forward Kalu Uche, is a product of the Enyimba youth team. In 2006, he moved to Bussdor FC in neighbouring Port Harcourt to get more playing time and experience in the lower league. He spent two seasons there before he returned to the Aba club as a largely finished article. Veteran assistant coach, Audu Maikaba, and most in the football-mad country of Nigeria rate Kalu very highly. “He’s one of the best finishers in the Nigerian league, a striker who is good on the ball, runs at defences and has good aerial power,” remarked Maikaba. “Kalu is our top striker and our hope is on him to deliver.”
Auta seconded the importance of the relative youngster to Enyimba’s continental aspirations, saying: “He is a class act, a complete striker, who is intelligent, uses both legs, and I enjoy playing alongside him. I believe he will make a big difference for us on Sunday afternoon.”
In-form at the right time
This season has been one of rebirth for the Item-born centre forward, whose career was in tatters last term following an ankle injury that sidelined him for over six months. But his emergence is in keeping with the traditions of Enyimba, who have over time launched other prolific strikers like Stephen Worgu and Ezenwa Otorogu on the international stage.
Enyimba have most certainly lost the chance to successfully defend their league crown this season after they suffered defeat in two rescheduled league games this past week. They are languishing in tenth place in the 20-team championship table, 21 points adrift of frontrunners Sunshine Stars and Dolphin.
Long-serving club chairman, Felix Anyansi-Agwu, has dismissed fears about their form after they lost four games on the trot, insisting the players know what is expected of them this weekend. Winning the 2011 Champions League is now the only ticket that would guarantee them international football next year after they also lost out to regional rivals Heartland in the country’s cup competition last month.
For their most important game in recent times, Enyimba have set up training camp in Enugu, about four hours by road from Aba, so as to focus fully on the task at hand. This game has taken on added significance after the Nigerian national team failed at the weekend to qualify for the CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 25 years. With a populace hungry for success, more goals from the boots of Uche Kalu on Sunday and beyond would ensure ‘The People’s Elephant’ stay in the hunt for glory.