Although some of the 24 clubs competing in the 2019 Nigeria Professional Football League have already known their fate as far as qualifications for play off and relegation are concerned, there is still so much to play for as curtains fall on the elite division of the Nigerian league this weekend.
Already Akwa United and Kano Pillars have clinched two of the three playoff tickets in group B leaving only one ticket behind for the chasing pack of FC IfeanyiUbah, Nasarawa United and El-Kanemi Warriors of Maiduguri.
The final push for the available playoff tickets will be more intense in group A where only Rangers have so far picked one of the three tickets as Lobi Stars, Enyimba and MFM and are still contending for the remaining two tickets.
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It will be recalled that at the end of the regular season, the League Management Company will organise a playoff tournament for the three top teams in each of the groups to decide the overall winners of the 2019 NPFL season.
With the restoration of Nigeria’s slots in the CAF Clubs competitions, the first and runners up teams at the playoff will automatically feature in next year’s CAF Champions League while the third place team gets a place in the CAF Confederations Cup.
Thus, even as Rangers, Akwa United and Kano Pillars are home and dry as far as the battle for playoff tickets is concerned, FC IfeanyiUbah, Nasarawa United, El-Kanemi Warriors, Lobi Stars, Enyimba FC, MFM will head into the last day of the league knowing that they must win to stand any chance of qualifying for the playoff.
Therefore so much attention will be on the venues that will host matches involving the playoff contenders. Interestingly, the three playoff contenders in group A will end their season away from home.
While Lobi Stars with 34 points will battle already relegated Remo Stars in Shagamu, Enyimba on 33 points will be the guest of Katsina United just as MFM with 32 points will face Sunshine Stars in Akure. These matches are must win for the three clubs.
Consequently, as the battle of stars holds in Shagamu tomorrow, fans of the ‘pride of Benue’ will be praying fervently for luck to smile on their team because they know that Lobi Stars need at least a draw to qualify.
Although second on the group A table, only two points separate Lobi Stars from third placed MFM. A draw at Remo Stars and victory for MFM in Akure might affect Lobi Stars continental dreams, if Enyimba win the maximum points against Katsina United.
In case MFM and Lobi Stars win but Enyimba fall at Katsina United, the ‘Olukoya boys’ and Lobi Stars will come second and third respectively in the group.
However, such permutations will be unnecessary in group A, if Lobi Stars and Enyimba FC will pick the maximum points in Shagamu and Katsina. Furthermore, if each of the clubs draw their matches, there will be no need to bring out the calculators.
A look at the strengths of their opponents shows that the odds favour Lobi Stars because Remo Stars have little or nothing to play for but Sunshine Stars will be relegated, if they lose to MFM. Thus, MFM have a mountain to climb in Akure.
In Katsina, the ‘Chanji boys’ who are still in danger of relegation will go for the maximum points against Enyimba to stay in the topflight. They know that if they lose and there are wins elsewhere for Sunshine Stars and Kwara United, they will be doomed.
While the trio of Lobi Stars, Enyimba FC and MFM will be fighting fiercely for the two playoff tickets in group A, the battle for survival will be on at the other end of the table as fans wait with bated breaths to see who will join already relegated Remo Stars and Niger Tornadoes.
Putting on the ‘red tag’ as they head into their final matches in the group are Kwara United and Sunshine Stars. Both clubs have only thin hopes of survival because even if they win their matches, either Katsina United (27) or Wikki Tourists (27) points must slip for at least one of the two ‘hopefuls’ Sunshine Stars (26 points) and Kwara United (24 points) to escape the drop.
So as it is, the battle grounds to watch in the relegation fight in group A are no doubt Akure and Minna. While Sunshine Stars host playoff contenders MFM in Akure, Kwara United will be guests of already relegated Niger Tornadoes in Minna.
As stated earlier, anything short of victories or at least a draw will see Sunshine Stars and Kwara United campaigning in the lower division next season.
In group B, the race for the remaining playoff ticket is on for FC IfeanyiUbah (33 points), Nasarawa United (30 points), El-Kanemi Warriors (30 points) as they head into the final day of the league.
In this group also, the calculators will remain on the shelf, if FC IfeanyiUbah will beat visiting Akwa United who already have one of the playoff tickets in their bag. However, if the ‘Nnewi millionaires’ who need just a draw to pick the remaining ticket falter, that is when any of Nasarawa United or El-Kanemi Warriors might leapfrog them.
What is giving Nasarawa United and El-Kanemi Warriors a glimmer of hope is FC IfeanyiUbah’s poor goal difference. They have minus one which means if either Nasarawa United or El-Kanemi Warriors will conjure plenty goals on Sunday, the ‘millionaires’ will be left gnashing their teeth.
While there will be celebrations in the camps of either FC IfeanyiUbah, Nasarawa United, El-Kanemi Warriors or Delta Force, there will surely be wailing and gnashing of teeth elsewhere as Plateau United, Abia Warriors, Heartland and Gombe United are presently romancing relegation in group B.
While two of the relegation threatened clubs will conclude the season at home, two will be on the road as they seek survival. Only victories will give any of the clubs a faint hope of staying in the topflight next season.
Heartland will host El-Kanemi Warriors in Owerri, Plateau United will travel to Asaba to battle Delta Force, Gombe United who will be praying for either Plateau United or Abia Warriors to lose will travel to Umuoku to face Go Round FC.
Plateau United need at least a draw in Asaba to survive but Abia Warriors must win convincingly to avoid being pulled down by Heartland. If they lose or draw with Kano Pillars in Umuahia, Abia Warriors will be leapfrogged by either Heartland or Gombe United, if the duo can win against El-Kanemi Warriors and Go Round.
Yobe Desert Stars and Remo Stars are already relegated in the group.
Indications are strong that among the four clubs that gained promotion from the National League to the NPFL last season, only Insurance and Delta Force (Kada City) will be left in the topflight at the end of the 2019 NPFL season.
Already Remo Stars have been relegated and Gombe United are seriously gasping for breath.
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