CLUB NEWS

Matchday 35 preview: Battle for title, continent & survival continues

By George Akpayen

The final run-in to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) will continue to shape up as clubs make last minute bid to win the title, qualify for one of three places for CAF club competitions or keep their places in the elite division.

Last matchday, title contenders MFM FC failed to make the most of the opportunity when they faced table-toppers Plateau United in a first-meet-second game at the Rwang Pam Stadium in Jos. Plateau United fired themselves to a slim 1-0 win courtesy of Ibeh Johnson's first half goal under soggy conditions.

 

Enyimba, El-Kanemi Warriors, Nasarawa United and Akwa United brightened their chances of finishing in the top-three while Remo Stars are all but relegated suffered their a fifth home defeat this season.

Title race
It was looking like a two-team race between Plateau United and MFM at some point until last weekend when the latter lost to the former and then Akwa United and Enyimba threw their hats in the ring too though both clubs are currently eight points each off the pace.

Plateau United will resume their chase for a first title this Sunday when they play at ABS FC. This game is a banana peel for the Jos club like their next three matches against Rivers United, Wikki Tourists and Rangers, all with relegation worries. Boboye's team go into this game with a five-game unbeaten streak but have not won on the road since a 2-1 win at Sunshine Stars in June.

Out of the top-four sides MFM are only team playing at home when they play hosts to relegation-threatened Gombe United. MFM have not lost in their last 21 home matches, and their coach Fidelis Ilechukwu still feels his side are in the title race.

"The title race is not over yet," he told npfl.ng. "Yes we lost against Plateau United but we now need to win our next game and also win on the road and that way the title race could be open."

Akwa United and Enyimba play at FC Ifeanyiubah and Rivers United respectively in tricky games. The trip to Nnewi for Akwa United comes at a time their opponents are aiming for a top-three finish to return to continental football while Rivers United are in dire need of the full points to ease their relegation worries.

Continental places
Plateau United, according to pundits, sure look like they have claimed one of the three continental places available through the league but Boboye knows they have to thread softly and keep their expectations at a premium with four matchdays to go.

"No I don't think so. It is not done and dusted yet. We still have four games and that's how we will keep battling till the end of the season," said Boboye.

The race for the top-three, or continental positions, could go down to the wire as MFM FC, Akwa United, Enyimba, El-Kanemi Warriors, Nasarawa United and FC Ifeanyiubah are still in the running. Interestingly. El-Kanemi and Nasarawa United will be involved with delicate games at Lobi Stars and Shooting Stars Sports Club (3SC).

Survival battle
Newcomers Remo Stars are now technically confirmed to have dropped to the second tier, the Nigeria National League (NNL) after last Sunday's home loss to Rivers United. The interesting part of the survival race is that all the teams below 50 points now stand the risk of being sucked into the deep end of the table should they drop points this Sunday.

The survival race starts from Kano Pillars in eighth position with 48 points, five more than the bottom-four. However the clubs in real danger of going down are last season's champions Rangers, Katsina United, Rivers United, Sunshine Stars, Wikki Tourists, Shooting Stars, ABS and Gombe United.

The title-holders could ease their fear of dropping out of the premier division for the first time in their history if they see off Katsina United at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium in Enugu. Wikki will go up against Remo Stars at home while Shooting Stars and Sunshine Stars also play at home against Nasarawa United and Niger Tornadoes.

Missing in action this weekend
Twenty of the top stars in the NPFL will again be missing this matchday as they are involved in international duty with the Super Eagles for the 2018 CHAN qualifier against Benin Republic. Important among the absentees this Sunday are MFM duo of Stephen Odey and Sikiru Olatunbosun as well as Akwa United's Alhassan Ibrahim, Rabiu Ali of Kano Pillars, El-Kanemi's Samuel Mathias, Thomas Zenke of Nasarawa United and Osas Okoro of Rangers.

On the suspension front. Rivers United will be without goalkeeper Rotimi Sunday for the game against Enyimba due to accumulated yellow cards. MFM's Tchato Giscard, FC Ifeanyiubah's Godwin Obaje, Plateau United's Jimmy Ambrose are also suspended for this matchday.

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