The newly crowned Mainland Conference champions, Raineri Ghost have a very good spine in their team and, of course, having a spine is an important first step in building a great team. Through the middle, they’ve kept a record 7 clean sheets which is testament to the effort of their goal-keepers and center-backs, while in attack they’ve produced 15 goals, which is second only to Saints’ season high, 17 goals scored (both Raineri & Saints were awarded automatic 3-0 wins against Alphas & Knights to take their totals to 18 & 20 respectively). They’ve also won a SociaLiga record of 5 games in a row, a feat Saints, Royals & Bravos Knights didn’t accomplish during their spells of dominance at different points over the last 2 seasons. Raineri’s spine has been so good this season that it has masked their flaws out wide. In a nutshell, Raineri know their strengths and they play to it. Another reason for Raineri’s success this season, and admittedly this is simplistic, is the fact that they’ve been underestimated by opponents more often than not. First impressions matter and it seems teams go into games against Raineri treating them as “The team that went a record of 3 games without scoring to start the season” rather than “the team that brought The Rain on a historic matchday 4”. Raineri have fully embraced opponents underestimating them and they’ve made them pay. There was an honest post-match interview granted by the Royals after their loss in the playoffs where they confessed they had lost concentration towards the end of the game and Raineri Ghost deserved the win because they played like they wanted it more.
To lay more emphasis on the spine of Raineri, we begin with their defense. Raineri’s center-backs have got something going for them which is their size; they’re bigger than your average SociaLiga center-back. They bring memories of Leicester City Premier League winning defensive duo, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan. Raineri’s center-backs lack pace so, rather than zonal mark, they man mark which ensures they’ve got a man locked down and don’t have to worry about picking up ‘random players’ waltzing into their zones. Also, because of their size, they’ve not conceded a headed goal all season. They’ve conceded just one goal from a corner-kick, though, a shot after a rare poor clearance against Bravos Knights. For the Raineri center-backs, they’ve sent out a message that if you want to beat them, you better be prepared to put that ball on the ground because nothing gets past them in the air.
In attack, they’ve got Shahin “Benzema” Alawam who has been one of the best players to watch in the league and a frontrunner for the MVP award. He’s contributed to over half of Raineri’s 15 goals scoring 6 and creating 2. Besides his excellent finishing, Benzema’s ability to drift out wide and find space when the middle is choked or center-backs seem to have him figured out is what sets him apart with the left of the pitch his preferred option (to favour his shooting foot). Another key to Raineri’s attack has been Boluwatife Faleye. Operating in the hole behind the striker, Boluwatife has been a great addition to the Raineri squad. In the second clash with Citizens on Matchday 6, Benzema was rested at the start of the game and Boluwatife stepped up with one of his best displays this season scoring a clever match-winning free-kick to get his team all 3 points. Raineri’s most important player, however, has been Victor Eneji.
Playing in the heart of Raineri’s midfield, Victor Eneji has been at the center of everything good for the newly crowned Mainland Conference champions. When Victor Eneji plays well, the team plays well. When he doesn’t, the team doesn’t. In Raineri’s 5-0 win over All Black, he was the architect behind the first 2 goals which effectively won them the game. His assist for Benzema’s opener was made to look much easier than it was.
Victor Eneji plucks the ball from the air but not cleanly enough. The ball takes a little bounce but he spots Benzema making a run and he makes no mistake in finding him. The assist is even more brilliant because he had 2 All Black players closing in on him, another two shielding the defense and a defender marking his target, Benzema. Yet, he manages to play the ball to his feet, just as he wanted. If there was any play that epitomized Victor Eneji’s brilliance as a player, it was in the second goal:
A goal down, All Black began building an attack and tried to switch play from their right flank to the left.Midfielder, Okezie Iloha spots a runner on the left and tries to pass to him but Victor Eneji intercepts the ball and it bounces off his gut to Abdullah Rasaq. Eneji spots Boluwatife free and signals that Rasaq should get the ball to Boluwatife but Rasaq ignores and passes the ball to him (Eneji) instead and he speeds up to get it due to the pass being slightly over hit. In motion, he beats an on-rushing All Black player and takes the ball to the right. All Black immediately retreat and overload the right to press Eneji but he looks up and notices the left of the pitch is quite free. He plays a little one-two pass with Patrick which looked needless but was very, very effective because it shook off the All Black player who was marking him (judging by his body language, you can see Eneji’s marker completely lose interest in the game as soon as the one-two was played). Eneji regains possession of the ball and finds Abiola with a defense splitting pass with the outside of his foot which catches the All Black right-back sleeping and Abiola unselfishly plays a lateral pass to Emeka Nwosu for a simple tap in. Intelligence to intercept the ball, ability to beat a man, vision to spot a free area of the pitch and move play there, the technique to play that through ball. Perfectly summarizes what Eneji brings to the team. Champagne Football.
In addition to his physical attributes, his confidence is almost unmatched. He trash-talks online (@vriszye on Twitter), often talking about how he’ll dominate games but like the great Triple H says “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up” & he does back it up.
Heading into the playoffs, we did briefly highlight the threat posed by the trio of Benzema, Boluwatife & Victor Eneji. In the Mainland Conference semi-finals against Royals, Benzema had a goal and an assist, Boluwatife had an assist and Victor Eneji had a goal and an assist. Ignore them, they’ll hurt you.
While Raineri has been enjoyable to watch especially in attack, they’ve had similar lapses in defense to Saints but, perhaps, theirs is more worrying. Royals and Raineri Ghost faced each other three times this season and in all 3 games, Royals repeatedly took advantage of Raineri’s weakness at right-back. Of the 4 goals Royals scored against Raineri in those 3 games, 3 came down their left (Raineri’s right).
[This video contains two key plays involving Royals’ Sly] In the first play, Sly strolls down the left to score the opener with Raineri’s right-back nowhere to be found. (You can see the Raineri center-backs struggling to catch up with Sly). In the second play, Raineri skipper, Gideon Philip plays a freekick long and, surprisingly the fullbacks rush forward which is strange. The ball is headed out & Royals’ Uzodinma, who picks it out, plays the ball down the left to Johnson who has acres of space and lots of time to operate. He weighs his options and plays a brilliant pass to Sly but Sly fails to convert the chance to send Royals 2-0 up. It was a significant miss as Royals went on to lose the match.
On matchday 6, both teams met again & this time, Royals won. In the build up to the opening play, Victor Eneji, who rarely finds himself out of position, is a few meters from where he should be. Royals’ Scott spins past Raineri’s Rasaq with ease and plays the ball to Olumide. In this play, the Raineri right-back, Oluwole is in perfect position but with Eneji and Rasaq nowhere in the frame, he understandably tries to close down Olumide who plays a first time pass to Ebi (now free from Oluwole). The play eventually results in a goal from Sly & you begin to see a pattern forming here.
The third meeting between the two sides came in the semi-final of the Mainland Conference where they again conceded from an error on the right with Royal’s Tade making no mistake with his shot.
Raineri’s record of 7 clean sheets didn’t come to them by luck, they worked for it and, like we pointed out earlier, they’ve repeatedly played to their strength. But, you can’t deny that they’ve struggled with teams willing to stretch them and play down the flanks where their weaknesses lie rather than through the middle where their strengths lie. On Saturday they face a Saints team capable of playing down wings and you do get a feeling Nurudeen Olusesi will be an early threat if not properly contained.
In addition, one last phase Raineri have excelled in is set-pieces. In football, there are 5 primary game phases, as you may know; possession of the ball, transition to not having the ball, oppositional possession of the ball, transition to having the ball and set-pieces. Many teams focus on the first four phases and leave out the 5th, set-pieces but not Raineri. This season, they’ve scored 2 freekicks, 1 goal from a corner-kick and 3 penalties (they’ve been awarded the most penalties this year), a little reason to worry for Saints ahead of Saturday’s final.