By George Akpayen: The Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) returns this weekend with Katsina United and Kano Pillars setting the tone at the Muhammadu Dikko Stadium this Saturday.
Last season the big performers were Plateau United and MFM FC, surprisingly and add to that Anthony Okpotu, Stephen Odey and Sunday Adetunji hogged the headlines for good reasons.
This weekend the country’s top division gets underway and here are the EIGHT things to look out for on the first matchday.
1) Ilechukwu and MFM begin post-Odey era
Last season’s runners-up MFM will have to move on from Stephen Odey who has already settled in at his Swiss club FC Zurich. Odey notched up 18 goals out of the total 42 scored by the Lagos club. Fidelis Ilechukwu’s attempt to bring in a replacement for the striker suffered a setback when they could not tie down a deal for Victor Mbaoma who has now joined Aiteo Cup holders Akwa United.
Ilechukwu will now look to Adegboyega Adekunle who impressed in the NPFL Invitational Tournament in Kano last month or Adebayo Waheed to fill the number nine role when they start their campaign at Abia Warriors.
2) Go Round FC face the first test in NPFL
New boys Go Round FC make the trip to the central city of Jos to face Wikki Tourists. It will be their first-ever game in the NPFL after winning promotion from the second tier, the Nigeria National League (NNL) last season. However, Ngozi Elechi will start the season without two of his influential players Shedrack Oghale and Ekunta Etenfa who scored a combined total of 16 goals in the second tier last term.
3) Former champions Heartland back in big time
Another promoted side Heartland make a return to the NPFL after they were relegated two seasons ago – their first time dropping out of the top division. Now they start their first game in the NPFL since promotion with a tricky contest against Sunshine Stars at the Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri this Sunday.
4) Will Ohanu and Omoyele be the new poster boys?
Last season’s top performers in the second tier, Michael Ohanu of Kwara United and Tosin Omoyele now with Plateau United after switching from Osun United will have their first feel of big-time football in the country.
Ohanu finished the NNL season as top scorer with 21 goals and surely will be a marked man when Kwara United start their season at home against Niger Tornadoes. Omoyele was impressive for Osun United and netted 15 goals which could not help the Osogbo club earn promotion.
Omoyele has already given a slice of what to expect this season when he made two appearances for the champions at last month’s pre-season tournament in Kano and then earned himself a call to the Super Eagles preparing for the African Nations Championship (CHAN) at the time.
5) Can Plateau United become first title holders to win on opening day since 2013?
None of the champions since 2013 have won their opening game of the season since Kano Pillars defeated Wikki Tourists in Bauchi 1-0. Kano Pillars (in 2014 and 2015), Enyimba (in 2016) and Rangers (in 2017) have failed to win their first games of the season. The best result of the lot was Kano Pillars’ 1-1 draw at Giwa FC in 2014.
Plateau United will now hope to end that run of bad luck for the league champions on an opening day, but they will have to overcome Nasarawa United who has in the past two seasons have been slow starters. Last season, Plateau United grind out a 0-0 draw in Lafia.
6) Will lightning strike twice in Port Harcourt?
The Rivers United versus El-Kanemi Warriors is the same fixture between the two teams in last season’s opening day fixture. The Rivers club ran out 2-1 winners with Guy Keumian and Emeka Ogbugh scoring for them. Bello Kofarmata’s late rally in added time proved insufficient for El-Kanemi to leave the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt with a result. Can El-Kanemi stop Rivers United inflicting another defeat on them this time?
7) Brazilian Everton starts life at Abia Warriors
Brazilian coach Rafael Everton Lira will take charge of an NPFL team as manager only for the second time after his brief stint with FC Ifeanyiubah two seasons ago where he led them to Cup triumph. He had also worked as a backroom staff at FC Ifeanyiubah before he got the nod of head coach. It appears the Brazilian has a real love for Oriental clubs, and this time he starts life in Umuahia with his team when they play hosts to MFM FC on Sunday.
8) Can Pillars be the first away team to win an opening game since 2002?
Whenever there are single opening games for the NPFL season, none of the away clubs has won this fixture. The only time there was an away win in an opening game fixture was in 2002 when Enyimba defeated Gombe United 2-0, and that season there were multiple opening games.
However, since 2013, no away club has managed to defeat their host team in the opening game of the season. Kano Pillars now have the chance to rewrite that poor run of history in the top-flight.