By George Akpayen
The most competitive championship in the World, the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL), comes to a final stop this Saturday after nine months of incredible moments trimming down the race for the title to just two teams; Plateau United and MFM FC.
All season, and even before the start of the campaign, there has been a constant spin by pundits on how the title race will shape up and who will finish in the top-three or survive the drop. Now all that will come to a halt like train on a steam engine whistling to a stop. The talk centered on the big guns Rangers International and Enyimba who have won the title seven times apiece as well as Rivers United that recruited some of the best talents in the country plus a pre-season in Spain.
However Jos club, Plateau United and MFM FC have re-written that script. Two teams battling for survival last season have switched things and it is safe to call it the ‘season of the underdogs.’
It now seems like yesterday when Rangers International were crowned champions of the NPFL at their Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium home ground in front of their faithful amid a sea of red and white on 2 October, 2016.
Eleven months after the Rangers story of winning a first league title in 32 years, a different narrative unfolded with two teams Plateau United and MFM FC, who have never won the trophy, going into the final day neck and neck. One point separates table-topping Plateau United on 63 points and second-placed MFM. So the NPFL will witness a 19th champion this Saturday no matter where the pendulum swings.
As the season wore on, things remained the same at the top. It has been more of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (translated to English as ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’) situation. After every matchday, Plateau United kept remaining at the top of the standings except on only four occasions when MFM wrested top spot from them on Matchdays 1, 14, 16 and 18. After every matchday, the top looked the same.
Kennedy Boboye’s Plateau United went on a seven-game unbeaten run at the outset of this season until Akwa United ended that run on Matchday 8 with a 2-1 win after goals from Christian Pyagbara and Ibrahim Alhassan before Chima Ndukwu came off the bench to half the deficit. It was expected that Boboye’s men would lose momentum like previous teams Sunshine Stars and Abia Warriors he has managed did in past seasons.
Instead Plateau United have looked so assured in top spot like a well worn-slippers that fits them. But they face outgoing champions Rangers who they have only managed just one win against in their last five NPFL meetings on the final day. Add to that, Boboye’s team have failed to win in their last three league matches – a 1-1 draw at home to Rivers United and two losses on the road to ABS FC and Wikki Tourists.
Plateau United captain Elisha Golbe says they are focused, and unfazed by the numbers. He told npfl.ng: “We are battle ready, we are looking forward to lifting the league title. The game against Rangers is like a cup final for us and we are taking it very seriously. We have not come this far to miss out on the trophy.”
On the other hand, MFM have largely depended on home form to stay in the race. Eighteen of their 17 victories (51 per cent, being the highest this season) have been at their Agege Stadium ground. Heavy defeats at FC Ifeanyiubah, Nasarawa United and Niger Tornadoes have not helped their goals difference. On this basis, some pundits are already handing the title to Plateau United considering MFM’s final day opponents are El-Kanemi who are undefeated in their last 31 home matches since a 3-1 defeat to Akwa United in March last year.
BIG BOYS FALTER INTO CONTINENTAL TUSSLE
With MFM and Plateau United already assured of CAF Champions League spots, two of the big hitters are now left scrambling for what looks like crumbs from the table – a place in the less-fancied CAF Confederation Cup. Rangers, Rivers United and Kano Pillars initially tipped to finish in the top-three have found the going tough while the fight for third place is now between Akwa United and Enyimba with the former having their tails between their legs going into the final day.
The Peoples Elephant are favourites to land the final place in the top-three ahead of Akwa United as they have a point superior over Abdu Maikaba’s team. Nevertheless they have to prove that when they face relegation-threatened Katsina United at the UJ Esuene Stadium in Calabar where they have won their last 13 home games. The Promise Keepers will only hope Katsina United do them a favour while they aim to pull off a win over Kano Pillars as the race for third place is out of their hands to determine.
Remo Stars and Gombe United do not have their fate in their hands any longer as they have been relegated. Two spots are now left to be confirmed to complete the quartet that will drop to the second tier at the end of this campaign.
Mathematically, 13 clubs – from sixth to 18th position on the league table – could end up being relegated. In 18th-place ABS FC have 50 points and Lobi in sixth have 53 but it will take the Ilorin club a huge Cricket-like scoreline to usurp Lobi depending on results elsewhere as they play on the road.
For ABS, Wikki Tourists and Shooting Stars Sports Club (3SC), it looks like a touch-and-go situation as a slip-up by any of them in their games on the road at Nasarawa United, Gombe United and Niger Tornadoes could mean the tolling of a bell. However, Abia Warriors, Tornadoes, Sunshine Stars, Katsina United, Rivers United, El-Kanemi, Rangers, FC Ifeanyiubah and Nasarawa United complete the roll call of the 13 still in the battle for survival.
Lobi Stars, still statistically in the race for survival will look up to their leading scorer Anthony Okpotu to help them in the final day game at FC Ifeanyiubah. Okpotu will also look to finish top scorer in the league this term. He needs just a goal to do so, and at the same time reach 70 goals in the NPFL especially with MFM’s Stephen Odey on same 18 goals with him now in Switzerland to tie up a deal with a club.
The battle for the gloves is already done and dusted with Nasarawa United goalkeeper Suraj Ayeleso on 15 clean sheets, two more than Mustapha Aliko of Tornadoes and Akwa United’s Olorunleke Ojo. Aliko and Ojo can only finish with 14 clean sheets apiece if their teams do not concede on Saturday.
After 237 calendar days (as at 7 September) of 370 league matches that produced 741 goals averaging two goals per game, the NPFL meanders into one last matchday this term with a new champion waiting to be crowned.