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Top spot up for grabs as campaign steers into Matchday 10

By George Akpayen

Table-toppers Akwa United could surrender their place at the top of the pile in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) this weekend as they have had their Matchday 10 game against Heartland postponed until a new date, but second-placed Kano Pillars and Enyimba in fourth position are lurking to take top spot.

Akwa United and champions Plateau United have been excused from playing Heartland and Go Round FC after midweek games on the continent after their arrival into the country would come few hours before the kickoff of Matchday 10.

Four-time champions Kano Pillars start the day level on points with Akwa United but have a contest in their hands when they square up against Enugu Rangers at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium this Sunday. Pillars have only won once in that ground in their last 15 visits.

When both teams meet this Sunday, it will be exactly 2,429 calendar days when Kano Pillars won inside the Nnamdi Azikiwe. They defeated Rangers 1-0 on their patch through Musa Musa’s second half strike. However since that defeat at home on July 3, 2011, the Flying Antelopes have won the last meetings of this same fixture.

Gbenga Ogunbote has instilled a new defending ethos at Rangers unlike his predecessor Imama Amapakabo who preferred to set up his team to play from the front. After a poor start to the campaign, the Flying Antelopes are gradually becoming mean at the back. They currently are yet to concede in their last three games, in fact the last team (Nasarawa United) to breach their defence did so from the spot at the death.

Kano Pillars going into Sunday’s game with impressive numbers – currently on a run of four clean sheets (the most by any team), one of the top-scoring sides, just one defeat in nine matches and the leading top scorer Junior Lokosa in their fold. These ingredients make Ibrahim Musa’s men a difficult opposition.

Rangers defence would already have bookmarked Lokosa as the main threat to stop as he has accounted for 66 percent of Kano Pillars’ total goals this season. Lokosa has also scored two of his club’s three away goals. However Pillars are not just about the former First Bank FC striker as Rabiu Ali, Nyima Nwagua, Alassan Ibrahim, Victor Dennis and Emmanuel Anyanwu add to quality to their team.

One man will surely be missed in the heart of the Kano club’s defence. Chinedu Udoji. The centre-back died in an auto crash last Sunday just few hours after featuring in the 1-1 draw with Enyimba. Pillars coach Musa said to npfl.ng about the late defender: “I still find it hard to accept he is gone. His death has left a big vacuum and pain among us as a team because he was a total professional and has a very big heart. But we will give our best to play for him.”

Interestingly, Rangers have managed just six goals in nine matches. So it means Lokosa has scored more than the whole of Ogunbote’s squad. It appears the focus has been on ensuring they do not concede as Kelvin Itoya, who has been on the fringes, is their top scorer with two goals.

The Flying Antelopes’ lean scoring spell is also evident in their last three results at home – 1-0 wins over Katsina United, Rivers United and El-Kanemi Warriors.

Enyimba, like their arch-rivals Kano Pillars, also will have their sights on top spot. Akure side Sunshine Stars stand in their way. The People’s Elephant are favourites ahead of this contest and are on a six-game unbeaten run with Stanley Dimgba shouldering goalscoring responsbility. Dimgba comes face-to-face with his former team this Sunday at the UJ Esuene Stadium in Calabar.

The Akure Gunners, or Owena Waves as they are also nicknamed nowadays, will have to put aside their off the pitch problems and roll up their sleeves for a battle against the seven-time champions who have suffered just a defeat this term when they lost two-nil at Katsina United.

MATHEMATICAL CHANCE OF TOP SPOT

Apart from Kano Pillars and Enyimba who are within touching distance of wresting control of top spot from Akwa United, there are five other clubs with arithmetic chance of gatecrashing into the summit of the league after this weekend.

Katsina United, Lobi Stars, Rangers, Rivers United and Yobe Desert Stars all have outside chances of moving into top spot after this weekend’s fixtures as they are all three points each behind the leaders Akwa United. Katsina United, Lobi and Rivers United all play on the road at Wikki Tourists, MFM FC and Kwara United.

The above-mentioned clubs will have to claim big margin wins over their opponents this weekend if they hope to go top and at the same time hope results elsewhere play in their favour.

NORTHEAST DERBY

With so much twists and turns for top spot, there is a northeast derby between Yobe Desert Stars and El-Kanemi Warriors on offer. This game will now be played at the Sani Abacha Stadium in Kano after Yobe Stars’s home ground, August 27th Stadium in Damaturu, was declared unfit to play hosts to NPFL games.

Last time both teams met in this fixture, it ended 2-2 in April 2002. That season, El-Kanemi and Yobe Stars got relegated though the campaign at present is still in its early stage to bring up who beats the drop.

El-Kanemi have managed just one win in six including four defeats in four away games without scoring, something that will give their head coach Amapakabo concern. For Mohammed Baba Ganaru, it will be a return to a familiar ground where he was boss of Kano Pillars and led them to win the title in 2013. So it will be a homecoming for Baba Ganaru though he will be wary El-Kanemi can play spoilers.

CAF Champions League debutants MFM FC are also on duty this weekend as they play hosts to Lobi Stars at the Agege Stadium in Lagos while Niger Tornadoes make a return to their Bako Kontagora Stadium in Minna where they face Abia Warriors.

Former Cup champions FC Ifeanyiubah and Nasarawa United clash in Nnewi.