It all started with the signing of some of the best talents in the land, then onto unveiling them in an unprecedented fashion at the Nest of Champions before releasing an official team photo shoot. Akwa United are laying down a marker as the 2018/19 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season gets underway on Sunday.
The start of the new season ends months and months of wranglings, politicking and football impasse which bedevilled Nigerian football since the end of the last FIFA World Cup Russia. Sunday makes it exactly seven months that the last NPFL action – Heartland vs Enyimba on June 13 – was witnessed. What a break!
While teams were in limbo and players were hungered away during the obnoxiously enforced break, Akwa United were at work. The loss of their head coach Abdu Maikaba at the expiration of his contract was expected to bite hard but they looked to cushion that effect with the signing of Brazilian Rafael Everton.
They brought in prominent names in Nigerian football. Who doesn’t know Mfon Udoh? Or Ndifreke Effiong? Or three-time league winner Markson Ojobo? Should I mention 2018 CHAN midfielder Emeka Atuloma? Or what about the return to the league of 2014 World Cup star Juwon Oshaniwa? They have laid down the marker and coupled with a sumptuous facility, the Nest of Champions – unarguably the best in the country – Akwa means business! But as it is said in local parlance, it is now “time to show workings”.
“We are starting the league at home, against El-Kanemi. It is our belief that we should start well. It’s an abridged league. It is going to be a difficult league but if we start well we will maintain the momentum we had last season.
“In order to start well, we have gone ahead to add what we consider to be some very good players that will help us to realise our dreams,” club supremo Paul Bassey told www.aclsports.com
They kickoff the abridged season against El-Kanemi Warriors on Sunday at home and if they had hoped for a fair fixture to start with, there they have it. Mohammed Baba Ganaru‘s El-Kanemi have lost their first game in each of the last three seasons by the odd margin – including twice at Akwa’s neighbours Rivers United.
The Promise Keepers‘ biggest rivals (on paper) in Group B of the abridged season should be former league champions Kano Pillars and Plateau United. Pillars are still smarting from their inexplicable capitulation in the AITEO Cup final last year and will approach the new season with an unquenchable thirst for silverware.
Now led by former youth international Kabiru Baleria, the Sai Masu Gida still have the bulk of their squad from last season though they may have to cope with the imminent departure of top striker Junior Lokosa who is looking at offers abroad. Goalkeeper David Obiazo has left the club for Plateau United and has been effectively replaced with former Nasarawa United stopper Suraj Ayeleso while Yaro Bature joins an already talented attacking midfield department.
Plateau United now have Abdu Maikaba in charge. He is easily one of the best managers in the league and has also brought some special talents along with him. He will expect that Obiazo’s talent in playing out from the back helps in his team’s build up play while wing back Gabriel Wassa, wingers Sikiru Olatunbosun and Bernard Ovoke; added to striker Godwin Obaje, a man who thrived under Maikaba at Wikki look tantalising on paper.
Group A looks in all ramifications like the Group of Death. Oriental rivals Enyimba and Rangers will do battle with nominal league champions Lobi Stars. It is expected that Rangers and Lobi’s continued participation in continental football might give them the advantage of being in top competitive form but Lobi’s seeming lack of squad depth owing to players going abroad can be an impediment for the Pride of Benue.
Lobi Stars are coached by Solomon Ogbeide and were able to bring in the likes of John Lazarus, Kelly Kester, Dare Ojo, Samuel Mathias, Sunday Adetunji and Sikiru Alimi to bolster their squad, although the latter is among the group presently outside the country. It is believed that once you taste the group stage of any continental tournament, you want to always be there.
Cup champions Rangers have the experienced Gbenga Ogunbote in charge and the Flying Antelopes have continued to fly in the Confederation Cup. They are unbeaten after four matches in the tournament and will face Lesotho side Bantu in the playoff round before the group stage. Those games serve as worthy preparation for the NPFL season and they have back in their fold two prodigal sons Michael Okechukwu Uchebo and Bobby Clement after their sojourn abroad.
Enyimba lost their captain Mfon Udoh to Akwa United but were still able to retain core of the side that got to the semi-final of the CAF Confederation Cup last year. Goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali who joins from Go Round and defender Ugochukwu Anozie are virtually unknown but have been highly regarded since they joined the People’s Elephant. To cushion the effect of the loss of Udoh, they have also brought back their former winger Thomas Zenke from Nasarawa United while Reuben Bala joins them from Plateau United. Two more players that shout excite Aba fans in the upcoming season are Chukwuka Onuwa and Stanley Okorom who both joined from MFM.
The season will be short, but intense. Four teams will relegate to the NNL from each Group, meaning there is no time to slack. The League Management Company (LMC) also confirmed on Saturday morning that there will be a season-ending six teams playoff to determine the first three teams that will represent Nigeria in next season’s continental tournaments and the eventual champions.
MATCHDAY 1 (GROUP A)
January 13, 2019
Wikki Tourists vs Insurance (pp)
Rivers United vs Remo Stars (pp)
Rangers Int’l vs Niger Tornadoes (pp)
Lobi Stars vs Katsina United (pp)
Kwara United vs Sunshine Stars
Enyimba vs MFM FC
MATCHDAY 1 (GROUP B)
January 13, 2019
Yobe Desert Stars vs Gombe United (pp)
Go Round vs Kada City (pp)
Nasarawa United vs Abia Warriors
Plateau United vs FC Ifeanyiubah
Kano Pillars vs Heartland
Akwa United vs El-Kanemi Warriors