By Zazi Bariza
It may look like only a week back when Rangers International were crowned champions of the Nigerian Professional Football League, but here we are again with a brand new season, the 2016/2017 NPFL season.
Unlike previous seasons, the “Beyond the Three Points” campaign of the League Management Company is expected to make teams diverge focus from just winning football matches to other aspects of the game such as merchandise, employment creation and community participation.
Nonetheless, the performance of teams on match days will eventually be the decisive factor in determining who emerges champions, as well as those that we be sent packing to the lower division.
As it is with every season, some stand greater chances at the title than others, and some other will be contented with retaining topflight status. So, let us take a look at what teams are expected to do what in the 2016/2017 Nigeria Professional Football League season.
Without a shadow of doubt, Rangers International look like a side strong enough to defend their league title. They may not have had a particularly impressive preseason (failing to win the Super 4 Tournament and losing the Charity Cup), but their ability to tie coach Imama Amapakabo down with a new, improved contract as well as keeping the pivot of their title winning squad shows some level of consistency, which is key.
If Rivers United could put up a serious challenge last season, fighting for the title until the final match day, then they should be able to take it a step further this season.
Having enjoyed a smooth preseason, including triumph in the Super 4 and a training tour of Spain, the Port Harcourt based side look set for greater things.
They have also been bolstered by key signings - Esosa Igbinoba, Ifeanyi Nweke and Nzube Anaezemba - and the Serbian coaching course embarked upon by coach Stanley Eguma during the offseason. Do not also forget, the sponsors of the team, the Rivers State government have got their back!
The billionaire club, FC Ifeanyi Uba, have shown steady progress over the past two years. Last season, they won their first major title, the Federation Cup, and signed a partnership deal with Premier League side, West Ham United.
Although they endured a little tumult in the off season hiring and firing American-Japanese trainer Kenichi Yatsuhashi, placing a wager against the Ananmbra Warriors chances of challenging for top honours this season will be mighty risky
After failing to live up to expectations last season, Akwa United did the needful, parting ways with 'Belgerian' Maurice Cooreman, and replacing him with Abdul Maikaba who for two seasons furnished the league with an eye-catching brand of football with Wikki Tourists. Now at United,
Maikaba will hope to harness the abundant talent within the ranks and leverage on the overwhelming financial support the team enjoy from the state government. Key for them will be forward Christian Pyagbara. The former youth international failed to make a mark at Enyimba, but his exploits at Sharks two seasons ago shows that the Promise Keepers have a player who can deliver the goals in double figures.
Former champions Enyimba and Kano Pillars should also be considered in the number, but the new season has a lot to unfold, so let’s wait for it.
El Kanemi Warriors, for all the years they have spent in the topflight, have nothing of note to show. Last season, the Maiduguri based outfit only managed a paltry three points away from home and finished 16th on the log. Coach, Ladan Bosso was quick to explain that their poor away form was as a result of the distance from Maiduguri to other venues, but except they begin to pick points in away games, it may be another unremarkable season of mediocrity for them.
Though a traditional side, it took the timely intervention of Gbenga Ogunbote to save Shooting Stars from relegation last season. The death of defence stalwart, Joseph Izu will create a big hole at the back, but Oluyole Warriors will bang on the experience of new coach Fatai Amoo whose experience in the Premier League dates back to his days with the now defunct Julius Berger FC. Notwithstanding, few will expect a serious outing from them.
THE NEW BOYS
While Gombe United, ABS FC and Katsina United are staging come backs; Remos Stars are having their first thirst of the Nigerian topflight.
In Manu Garba, Gombe United have a gaffer that not only gets the right results, but plays the 'right' football along with it. The 2013 FIFA U17 World Cup winning coach may not have experienced topflight players within his ranks, but his own exposure and commitment to winning can propel his youthful side to achieving great things this season.
One of the privately-owned teams, ABS FC have, from their first sojourn in the league, shown that they can compete with the big boys. Coached by Henry Makinwa, club Director of Football, Alloy Chukwuemeka says the team play 'digital football'; and the fans can’t wait to see how ‘digital’ football can get.
Remo Stars are another privately owned club campaigning in the league this season. For them, Coach Nduka Ugbade is known to be a student of scientific football, and having spent years as a TV pundit, it is time to work the talk.
Fifteen years after relegation from the topflight, Katsina United are returning to the NPFL with the resemblance of total newcomers. Coach Bala Nikyu is saddled with the responsibility of prosecuting the season largely with players that have no NPFL experience. The former Wikki Tourist gaffer was quoted as saying that NPFL teams are lazy, so perhaps, he has his plans mapped out.
Whatever be the case and however the teams eventually perform, fact remains that every new season comes with new expectations and predictions; new players and coaches; this and that, here and there. But be it as it may, all that followers of the NPFL want is a peculiarly interesting league season.