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HomeSportNPFL SEASON PREVIEW: Title challengers, pretenders and relegation candidates

NPFL SEASON PREVIEW: Title challengers, pretenders and relegation candidates

An insider’s take on what to expect in the NPFL this season.

After about 134 days since the last Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season ended with Akwa United emerging as champions, the gruelling wait for the start of the 2021/22 season is finally over, with matchday one fixtures kicking off across the country this weekend.

On Friday, MFM and Remo Stars will battle in the season’s opener at the Mobolaji Johnson Arena in Lagos. At the same time, other remaining games are expected to be played during the weekend.

Here is a look at what to expect in yet another intriguing campaign as the top sides take to the pitch, wanting to assert their dominance and authority early on, upon the return of hostilities.

Title Challengers

  • Enyimba and Finidi George
Finidi George has had a fine start to life as coach of Enyimba (Enyimba)

While there are always uncertainties around squads of several clubs ahead of every new campaign due to the strews of players’ movement, Enyimba still goes into every season with title aspirations.

The Aba Elephants have already snapped up the likes of Fatai Abdullahi, Olorunleke Ojo, Adekunle Adeleke and Chigozie Obasi, who were part of the best performers last season.

In addition, former Nigerian international Finidi George will be leading them this term after the expiration of former coach Fatai Osho’s contract.

The 50-year-old has begun life in Aba in stunning fashion, winning all of his first three games (CAF Confederation Cup) so far.

However, the task ahead of him will be to lead the side to a respectable finish or even claim a ninth league crown for the Aba Elephants.

  • Can Akwa United repeat?
After 25 years of existence, Akwa United won the title last season
After 25 years of existence, Akwa United won the title last season

Defending Champions Akwa United have a two-time winner of the league, Kennedy Boboye, in charge.

Their continental campaign was short-lived, and all attention will be on the league at this time.

The Promise Keepers have lost Olisa Ndah, Charles Atshimene, Ndifreke Effiong and a few other players to foreign clubs, but they should still contend for the league crown this term.

However, no team has won the NPFL crown in consecutive seasons since Kano Pillars did between 2012-2014.

  • Can Osho propel Rivers United?
Rivers United are considered favorites for the title
Rivers United are considered favorites for the title

Another team that falls under the contenders’ category has to be Rivers United.

They have always rivalled Enyimba in terms of players recruitment, but ahead of this campaign, they got the former Champions’ gaffer Osho.

His [Osho] tactical ingenuity could be the necessary help current long-term manager Stanley Eguma needs to claim his first league title since 2011.

Pretenders

Those clubs mentioned previously have shown incredible consistency in the league over the years.

These particular groups could challenge for a few weeks and go back to their default state for the remainder of the campaign.

  • Nasarawa United

Despite missing out on a continental ticket on the final day last season, Nasarawa United were one of the top performers.

They also suffered an Aiteo Cup defeat to Bayelsa United.

History suggests this could be a one-off campaign as Bala Nikyu and his men might fail to replicate the same performance this season.

  • Plateau United
Plateau United FC won the title in 2017 but they have not been a force to reckon with in recent seasons
Plateau United FC won the title in 2017 but they have not been a force to reckon with in recent seasons

Plateau United, for example, just got former Heartland coach Fidelis Ilechukwu on board and may not be seen as genuine title contenders.

Although they won the 2017 title, they have struggled to replicate that form in recent seasons.

With the massive recruitment of players this time and a new technical crew in about four years, they can be seen as pretenders for the title this season.

  • Kano Pillars
Kano Pillars (Instagram/Kano Pillars)
Kano Pillars (Instagram/Kano Pillars)

On their part, Kano Pillars’ continued heavy reliance on the ageing Rabiu Ali “Pele” is the reason why they have found themselves in this group.

Frenchman Lionel Soccoia was sacked midway into last season, and Ibrahim Musa took charge for the rest of the campaign.

However, Sai Masu Gida has already confirmed the return of Salisu Yusuf as the club’s technical adviser.

The Zaria-born tactician is expected to combine the club duties with his Chief Coach role at the Super Eagles, which might negatively affect the team’s performances in league games this season.

Kwara United

For all they did the last term, Kwara United may not be at that level again this season despite the arrival of former golden boot winner Junior Lokosa.

Abdu Maikaba’s Enugu Rangers are outsiders, too, especially after losing Ibrahim Olawoyin in the transfer window.

Relegation Candidates

For newly-promoted sides – Shooting Stars, Remo Stars, Niger Tornadoes and Gombe United – beating the drop remains their main goal this season.

Going by history, at least a newly promoted side always gets relegated immediately as soon as they are promoted.

So to avert that, Remo Stars have brought in experienced coach Gbenga Ogunbote, Dayo Ojo and Stanley Okorom as notable players to take them through.

Shooting Stars are one of the newly-promoted sides
Shooting Stars are one of the newly-promoted sides

It would be surprising if Niger Tornadoes and Gombe United avoid an immediate return to the Nigeria National League. Although they could be pretty exciting to watch, the probability of playing games away from their home ground could be their Achilles heel.

Shooting Stars are back in the top-flight for the first time since 2017 and have decided to keep a bulk of their squad that helped them gain promotion last campaign.

Apart from the newly promoted teams, Heartland FC and Sunshine Stars’ unpleasant financial situations could make them lose their Premier League status this term.

The new season promises to be exciting and explosive. The fans will have enough positives to savour.

Tobi Adepoju Samuel is a Nigerian football writer. He is an ex-member of the NFF Committee and also the former Media officer of the Future Eagles.

Olafare Michael Oluwabukolahttps://t.me/notchplug
A Nationa Diploma holder in Computer Science at LENS POLYTECHNIC Offa, a full-time blogger, beatmaker, modern graphics designer, talent manager, and a vocalist
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