Rangers battle Akwa in 2017/18 Nigeria premier league opener

IDRIS ADESINA, in this report, previews the 2017/18 NPFL season, which begins today across match venues

Plateau United achieved the unthinkable when they shocked bookmakers and league followers to emerge as champions of the Nigeria Professional Football League last season. They will be representing the country in the CAF Champions League along with league runners-up, MFM.

But as the new league season kicks off, the attention of league followers will not be on the coach Kennedy Boboye-led side alone. The Nigerian topflight football faithful will hope to see how the movement of managers from one club to the other during the off-season affects the fortunes of the clubs.

On Saturday, Katsina United hosted Kano Pillars in Katsina.

Changes

Before the signing players for the new season, some NPFL clubs began with a change of those at the helms of affairs of their technical duties.

The first change in coaches came from seven-time league champions, Enugu Rangers. After their jinx-breaking title win in 2016, the club battled with relegation in 2017 but managed to survive.

The Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi sacked the club’s management immediately the 2017 season ended. On November 1, 2017, Ugwuanyi unveiled former Enyimba and Shooting Stars coach, Gbenga Ogunbote, as the new coach of the Flying Antelopes.

Ogunbote, who left Enyimba after he failed to renew his contract with the People’s Elephant, was charged with returning the club to continental football and ensuring that Rangers are the team to beat in the NPFL.

The second biggest managerial move of the off-season involved El-Kanemi Warriors, who recruited Rangers’ title-winning coach, Imama Amapakabo. The Maiduguri club sacked former national U-20 coach, Ladan Bosso, after he led them to a sixth-place finish last season.

Imama, a 1985 U-17 World Cup winner, was appointed in October after being out of job since he was sacked by Rangers. The coach said he had his sights on making El-Kanemi a title-winning club.

Also, Abia Warriors parted ways with Abdullahi Biffo, who led them to 12th place finish and hired former IfeanyiUbah Brazilian coach, Rafael Everton, who was unveiled on October 24.

After Ogunbote’s departure, Enyimba were linked with many coaches but the two-time African champions settled for one of their former gaffers – Paul Aigbogun.

At IfeanyiUbah, Bosso was unveiled in a ceremony a few weeks after his sacking by El-Kanemi. He replaced former Ghanaian international Yaw Preko, who left the club at the end of last season.

In November, Katsina United named Biffo to replace Baldwin Bazuaye, who resigned from the club.

With a new management in place, Niger Tornadoes were the last club to change managers. The club’s new management, led by Abubakar Gawu, sacked Abubakar Bala and replaced him with former Heartland coach, Erasmus Onu.

Newly-promoted Yobe Desert Stars hired former Kano Pillars coach Mohammed Babaganaru and taxed him with retaining the status of the club in the topflight.

Akwa United retained Abdu Maikaba while Kano Pillars are still with Ibrahim Musa and Lobi Stars retained Solomon Ogbeide. Fidelis Ilechukwu remained with MFM, Nasarawa United are with Kabiru Dogo and Plateau United trusted Kennedy Boboye with the top coaching job while Rivers United maintained coach Stanley Eguma.

Sunshine Stars extended the contract of Duke Udi and Wikki Tourists retained Bala Nikyu.

Other newly-promoted clubs also retain their coaches: Go Round with Ngozi Elechi, Heartland with Ramson Madu and Kwara United kept faith with ex-Flying Eagles coach, John Obuh.

Top moves

Aside the managerial changes, there were also notable players moving from one club to the other. Newly-promoted Yobe made a wholesome change to their squad from the Nigeria National League as they signed the most number of players – 21 – with the star being former Rangers goalkeeper Itodo Akor.

Other notable signings in the league are Victor Mbaoma, who joined Akwa from relegated Remo Stars, Ajibola Otegbeye (Sunshine to Akwa), Adeshina Gata (ABS to Akwa), Femi Thomas (Rivers United to Rangers) and Abu Azeez (Shooting Stars to Rangers).

Star match

The star match of the opening day of the season is between Akwa United and Rangers in Uyo, with the other 18 clubs battling for honours across nine other match venues.

The Uyo encounter will be keenly followed because apart from being aired live by the Nigerian Television Authority, Ogunbote will want to begin his era at Rangers with a win. But Maikaba, who, having led the Promise Keepers to a fourth-place finish last season as well as winning the FA Cup, will want a victorious start to the season.

Both clubs recruited well with the hosts unveiling 16 new players – the third highest in the league – and the visitors boasting of 18 new additions to the squad. But the absence of key players like Ifeanyi Ifeanyi and Okechukwu Gabriel, who are on national assignment with the Super Eagles B side, from the Akwa team and the departure of dependable defender, Afeez Aremu, may see the Uyo club struggle a bit.

Rangers will also battle with the absence of key players like Osas Okoro and Orji Okagbue, who are also with the national team in Morocco for the African Nations Cup Championship.

However, the new signings for both clubs will want to impress the coaches to cement their places in the starting line-up ahead of subsequent matches.

In other matches, Katsina United will battle Pillars in a northern derby while IfeanyiUbah host new boys, Yobe Desert Stars, with Wikki Tourists at home against another new side, Go Round.

Lobi Stars host Enyimba in another potentially explosive encounter; Heartland welcome Sunshine to Owerri and Kwara United, whose players survived an auto crash during the week, host Niger Tornadoes while Nasarawa United play host to champions Plateau United in Lafia.

Rivers United will welcome Imama and his El-Kanemi Warriors to Port Harcourt and in Umuahia, Abia Warriors take on MFM.

Promoted teams

Heartland make a return to the Nigerian topflight after two seasons in the NNL. Kwara United also return after a long time in the second-tier league with Yobe Desert Stars staying the longest in the NNL before their promotion at the end of last season. But Omoku club, Go Round, are making their Premier League debut.

The four clubs will be hoping to retain their status in the NPFL and not return immediately to the second-tier league.

CAF campaigners

From February, champions Plateau and runners-up MFM will begin hostilities in the CAF Champions League while third-place Enyimba and Aiteo Cup winners Akwa do battle in the CAF Confederation Cup.

With their opponents already known, the four teams will hope to do better than what the country’s previous representatives did in recent years.

Stars to watch

Ardent league followers will be on the lookout for Sikiru Olatunbosun, Chukwuka Onuwa and Akanni Elijah – all of MFM.

Remo Stars’ highest goalscorer last season, Mbaoma, will also seek to impress his new employers, Akwa, while Femi Thomas, who was second choice behind league veteran Sunday Rotimi at Rivers, will also want to claim a starting place at Rangers.

Also, Super Sand Eagles star Abu Azeez, who was among the sacked players at Shooting Stars, is one to watch in the colours of Rangers.

Other stars to watch include Ikouwem Udoh of Enyimba, Suraj Ayeleso of Nasarawa United, who won the best goalkeeper award last season, Seun Sogbeso of Nasarawa and Nura Mohammed of El-Kanemi.

Officiating/fans

Quite often, when Nigerian clubs lose matches, especially away from home, the coaches’ language of defence is “poor officiating by the referee.”

Officiating as well as fans violence have characterised previous seasons of the league.

However, the Nigerian Football Federation, through its Referees Appointment Committee, has said it will not condone poor or biased officiating in the league this season.

Head of the committee, Sharif Inuwa, said the body was determined to weed out corrupt referees from the domestic league.

He said, “We are doing our best to change the perspective of people about our referees. The committee is working with the NRA (Nigeria Referees Association) to ensure that bad eggs are flushed out of the system.

“It will be a thing of joy for us to see Nigerian referees officiate in CAF competitions and World Cup matches. We have begun a process which I will not like to make public now.”

Also, clubs have begun to sensitise their fans to the need to avoid violence against match officials and opposing team fans during matches.

Spokesman for Sunshine Stars, Chris Okunuwa, one of the clubs punished by the League Management Company last season for fans’ violence, said the club had enlightened their fans and were ready for the new season.

He said, “Violence in any form – against officials or other people – at the stadiums are not welcome. Sunshine have worked with the leaders of our supporters club on the need to ensure that the team is well supported and violence is avoided during our home and away matches.”

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