The wait for the 2018 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) seemed like an eternity but the kickoff is now upon us and the opening day has served up tantalizing fixtures including touch-and-go games for the big guns.
Title holders Plateau United will make a 206 kilometres trip to Lafia where they will face neighbours Nasarawa United. The Solid Miners have failed to win a game against the champions in their last three league meetings. Nasarawa United have also failed to score in all those three games.
Last season’s runners-up MFM FC will have their hands full on the first matchday when they go up against Abia Warriors now managed by Brazilian coach Rafael Everton. MFM have had some big departures in the off-season and last term including strikers Stephen Odey and Austine Ogunye as well as Oladele Oshobe.
MFM head coach Fidelis Ilechukwu will turn to Adegboyega Adekunle or Waheed Adebayo to lead the lines with Olatunbosun Sikiru and Onuwa Chukwuka expected to provide guile and width against Abia Warriors who they have met just four times in the NPFL, and beaten only once.
Former champions Enyimba, Kano Pillars and Rangers are also up for very intricate contests on the road at Lobi Stars, Katsina United and Akwa United respectively.
Katsina United versus Kano Pillars will open the first north west regional derby while Rangers who won the title two seasons ago are up against Akwa United at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium in a very tricky game.
Akwa United have failed to put a win on the board against the Flying Antelopes in their last five league meetings including a 3-2 win in Uyo by Rangers in 2016 when they won a first league title in 32 years.
Enyimba go to a venue – the Aper Aku Stadium in Makurdi – where they have managed to take just a win in their last eight visits against Lobi Stars. The People’s Elephant have won only twice in their 15 visits to Lobi, and Paul Aigbogun will hope his men will hit the ground running as he begins his third stint with the Aba club.
DEJA VU FIXTURE
However another top side Rivers United (formerly Dolphins FC) will face the same opponent in their opening game of last season in El-Kanemi Warriors this Sunday. This time, El-Kanemi are under a new coach Imama Amapakabo who will be unavailable for this game owing to international assignment with the Super Eagles in Morocco for the African Championship Nations (CHAN).
El-Kanemi’s record at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt is nothing to write home about – nine visits have ended in nine defeats. They have conceded 20 goals and scored just once which was last season when Bello Kofarmata netted a late goal in their 1-2 loss after Guy Keumian Venance and Emeka Ogbugh had given the home team a two-goal lead.
Surely this does not look like a finely-balanced contest in the offing as Rivers United hold the advantage on paper.
THE NEW BOYS
Talking of advantage, the promoted clubs – Go Round, Heartland, Kwara United and Yobe Desert Stars – cannot just lay claim to such just yet despite sterling outings in the second tier, the Nigeria National League (NNL) last season.
Heartland make a return to the big time after they were relegated in 2016 for the first time in their history. This time they start at home inside the Dan Anyiam Stadium against Sunshine Stars. The Naze Millionaires of course will be wary of the Akure Gunners who stunned them in this same fixture three-nil in May 2015 – an episode a lot of Heartland faithful will not want to remember.
But it will be the 21st meeting between both sides since 2003. Naze Millionaires have won seven of the past 20 head-to-head contests, two more than Sunshine Stars’ win.
The last time Yobe Desert Stars played top-flight football was 15 years ago, and they lost their opening day fixture to Plateau United (3-1). Now they face FC Ifeanyiubah in Nnewi on Matchday 1. In 2002, when they met FC Ifeanyiubah (then Gabros International FC) in this same fixture, they suffered a 2-0 defeat.
Fans of the Afonja Warriors will witness their first top division football for the first time in three years when Kwara United play hosts to Niger Tornadoes. The last time both clubs met in this fixture, it produced a spectacular four-goal spine-chiller. Tornadoes, like a whirlwind raced into a two-goal lead through Sibi Gwar’s brace of goals before Kwara United clawed their way back through goals by Sheriff Isa and Usman Amoda.
The Kwara United versus Tornadoes always have goals, except for January 2007 when both teams fired blank. Otherwise this matchup has a very decent ratio of two goals per game.
The latest newbies to the NPFL are Go Round FC. They are the 17th new club set to play in the top division since 2002. Their first test will be at the Rwang Pam Stadium where Wikki Tourists will play their home games. Go Round will also hope to emulate the likes of Nembe City who stunned Heartland 2-1 in Owerri or even go the full hog like Ocean Boys who won the league title in 2006 in only their first attempt in the top-flight.
Go Round FC captain Nelson Esor already believes that they can achieve “a lot together as a team” after winning the NNL title in Lagos this week.