NPFL race for honours & survival enters business end

By George Akpayen

Part two of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) campaign this season begins this Sunday with nine matches on offer as the Akwa United versus Enyimba clash is postponed owing to the latter’s involvement in CAF Confederation Cup duty this weekend.

With 346 goals in total from 181 matches, the campaign is still under two goals per game, but that will not be the worry for the 18 clubs including 342 playing personnel and 18 managers involved this matchday. They will all be seeking for the full points in their different fixtures across nine venues.

The focus has always been on the pacesetters with the top-two Lobi Stars and Kano Pillars up for tricky matches.

However one match will be drawing attention for different reasons especially for the kind of managers in their employ. It is Fidelis Ilechukwu of MFM FC vs Hamza Abara of Niger Tornadoes.

CLASH OF NEW SCHOOL MANAGERS

It is part two of the meeting of two new school coaches in the division. Ilechukwu is quite the experienced of the two as he is in his third season as head coach in the NPFL while Abara is regarded as an upstart having previously worked as assistant coach until February 20 this year when he was elevated to head of coaching crew role at Tornadoes after his boss Erasmus Onuh was sacked.

By the time both coaches meet for the second time, it will be 75 days in charge as interim head coach of Tornadoes for Abara. He has not done badly as he remains unbeaten in his nine matches [6W 3D] in charge. In the first meeting Abara and his men got the full points with a 1-0 win thanks to Abubakar Nyadebo’s goal from the spot. However Tornadoes have never scored at MFM in their previous two trips — losing 3-0 in 2017 and 2-0 in 2016. But pundits feel Tornadoes look a different opposition under Abara.

CONTEST OF PROMOTED SIDES

Another manager of the new school, Abubakar Bala appears to be working magic at Kwara United who are beginning to believe. The Harmony Boys play hosts to Yobe Desert Stars after grinding out a 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture at the August 27 Stadium in Damaturu last Sunday.

Bala is confident his men can get the work done when the two sides meet at the Kwara Sports Stadium on Sunday. “We need to start winning games and maintain a consistent performance to take us out of the relegation zone. There are still 19 matches to play so we are focused on our next match (against Yobe Stars) and it is important we win this, and the boys know that,” Bala told npfl.ng.

Three points for Kwara United in the bottom-four against the highest-ranked promoted side would boost confidence levels in this final phase of the season.

TABLE-TOPPERS, CHAMPIONS IN DELICATE FIXTURES

At the top of the pile, defending champions Plateau United will have their work cut out when they face Katsina United who have been very unplayable in front of their supporters at the Muhammadu Dikko Stadium. Since the opening day 2-2 draw with Kano Pillars, Abdullahi Biffo’s men have gone on to win the next eight home matches.

Plateau United head to Katsina with an injury-ravaged squad. Salomon Junior, Joshua Obaje, Emma James, Elijah Golbe, Hamisu Sale, Benjamin Turba and Ibeh Johnson are among those with injuries and knocks ahead of the Matchday 20 game.

For table-topping Lobi Stars, it is now a different story of whether they can hold on to top spot for the long haul after occupying the summit for eight matchdays in total including the last seven consecutively.

However Sunshine Stars stand in their way for this matchday. Lobi earned a point in Akure in the reverse game and will be confident of putting the full points on the board. But this game presents itself as a banana peel for Lobi as Sunshine Stars are in dire need of points to ease their worries.

LOKOSA TAKES REDHOT FORM TO OWERRI

If Sunshine Stars are worried about easing their worries of moving out of the bottom-four, Heartland have more on their hands when Kano Pillars settle on the Dan Anyiam Stadium turf with Junior Lokosa on the prowl. Lokosa has scored 16 goals in 18 matches and during the week was the subject of discussion on whether he deserves to be part of the Super Eagles contingent for their pre-World Cup programme.

Lokosa scored twice in the first meeting when Pillars won 2-0. He is a surebet to be named among Ibrahim Musa’s startlist for the trip to Owerri barring any last-minute fitness issue.

Under-pressure Go Round head coach Ngozi Elechi will lead his men to Nnewi to square up against former Cup champions FC Ifeanyiubah after seeing his men end their winless streak of six matches in midweek with a 1-0 success over MFM. FC Ifeanyiubah and ‘Dare The Lion’ as Go Round are nicknamed played out a 0-0 draw in their first-ever NPFL clash, so the second meeting will be down to who blinks first.

Seven-time champions Rangers will face Wikki Tourists at the New Jos Stadium while Nasarawa United and El-Kanemi Warriors will square up. In Port Harcourt, Rivers United will be keen to improve their standing on the ranking when they play hosts to Abia Warriors, but at the same time will have to be wary of the strike partnership of Ndifreke Effiong and Samson Obi as well as Sunday Adetunji who is back from a lengthy layoff due to an arm injury.