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No breathing space for NPFL clubs as second stanza commences

After several weeks of suspense, the 2019/20 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season finally kicked off on Sunday, November 3, 2019 with the Match Day 1 fixtures played across the country.

According to the timetable sent to participating clubs by Salihu Abubakar, the Chief Operating Officer of the League Management Company, (LMC), the season will run until May 17, 2020.

Consequently, the first round of the league has witnessed crowded fixtures in a bid to meet up with the deadline.

Thus even as the first stanza of the 2019/2020 season ended on February 9, the clubs will have no time to rest as the second round will continue this weekend.

A top official of the LMC told Trust Sports that the season didn’t start in time so there is every need to recover lost ground.

“We are resuming immediately because we had lost so much time. The 2019/2020 season didn’t kick off early enough so we are like running behind schedule.

“The clubs are aware of this situation so there is no break. It is a painful situation but the clubs are cooperating,” he explained.

It is, therefore, a case of ‘about-turn, march on’ for the thoroughly exhausted clubs who have been battling with fatigue and injuries due to congested fixtures.

At the end of the first round, Lobi Stars of Makurdi are on top of the table with 35 points, followed closely by Plateau United (33), Rivers United (32) and Sunshine Stars (30) points respectively.

It has been a neck to neck race for Lobi Stars and Plateau United who have continued to exchange the leadership of the league table between them. While Lobi Stars ended the round on a high with 2-1 win over Wikki Tourists at home, Plateau United were held to 0-0 by Dakkada FC in Uyo.

Victory for Plateau United would have ensured they dethroned Lobi Stars but that didn’t happen.

Meanwhile, at the other half of the table, Nasarawa United, Adamawa United, Jigawa Golden Stars are battling for relegation having managed to secure miserable points from 19 matches played so far.

The surprise team of the first round is no doubt debutants, Dakkada FC of Akwa Ibom who successfully punched above their weight to stay in fifth place on the table with 30 points, same as Sunshine Stars who have a superior goal difference.

Out of 20 matches played by Dakkada, they have won 7, drawn 9 and lost only four matches to end the first round a step higher than their more illustrious neighbours Akwa United who are in sixth place.

Although gasping for breath, there is neither time for the clubs to take a breather nor return to the drawing board. However, when Trust Sports spoke to some of the key actors in the league, they unanimously said they were already plugging the loopholes for a more fruitful second half.

Speaking to Trust Sport, Kano Pillars secretary, Sayyadi Abdullahi said the officiating this season has been fair and he is hoping that it will continue into the second round.

“As far as I am concerned, the officiating has been good as the referees have tried as much as they could. This time we play away and win, no more home team must always win.

“It is also my fervent hope that by the time we finish playing our outstanding matches, we would break into the top four before the end of the season,” he said.

On his part, the captain of Plateau United, Elisha Golbe admitted that his team started well at the beginning of the league but couldn’t sustain the tempo as desired.

“As a team, we had a set target at the beginning of the season which was to end the first round in the first position but we ended in the second position.

“We will keep pushing and put our heads together. It is expected that there will be ups and downs but the coaches and players are putting in their best. We will keep pushing,” he said.

He, however, reiterated the club’s desire to retake the top position and move on to win their second NPFL title. Plateau United were champions in 2017.

“Definitely, for now, we will just make sure we push up to overtake Lobi Stars. Every team wants to win the league, so as we are preparing, it is the same way others are preparing. We are targeting more away victories to be able to win the league,” he stated.

Even as they are not where they would want to be on the log, former champions, Enyimba FC and Enugu Rangers are confident that once they are done with their outstanding matches, they would move up the table and contend strongly for the title.

Rangers Media Officer, Norbert Okolie, who also gave kudos to officiating by referees said his club is at the second half of the table on a temporal basis.

“Taking a look at the first round of the league, we can see great improvement. Teams are now winning away from home without problem. This didn’t happen often in the past seasons. It shows the referees and league managers are on top of their game.

“We are not a candidate for the second half of the table. We are where we are on a temporal basis. Sooner or later, we will get to our rightful position in the league. We are looking at the top three positions. Our coaches know their onions and what it takes to achieve that,” he said.

He also thanked the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) for intervening during their crisis period by sending in an experienced coach, Salisu Yusuf to guide the club out of the woods.

“NFF who seconded coach Salisu Yusuf knew what they were doing and we appreciate them for that. If not for injuries, we will not be thinking of swimming out of danger zones but that is not an excuse as football is a contact game,” he stated.

Speaking in the same vein, Enyimba defender and captain, Ifeanyi Anaemena blamed his team’s woes on the exodus of players, continental engagements and lack of sufficient time to blend the old and new players in the team.

“I have to say that the first round has been quite a difficult term for Enyimba because of the continental matches, stress and injuries. We didn’t start well anyway due to the combination of new players trying to meet up with the expectations of the team.

“We thank God we were able to come together and gradually got the results we wanted. We are glad that we qualified for the CAF Confederations Cup quarter-finals despite the exodus of some of the players. We also had a new coaching crew coming on board.

“We know how important the outstanding matches are to us and we will take the games seriously to leave the bottom of the table because that’s not where we belong. We have the mindset that we need to win to get into the top three on the table,” he said.

With Match Day 20 kicking off tomorrow, it is expected that top clubs like Lobi Stars, Plateau United, Rivers United, Sunshine Stars, Dakkada FC and Akwa United would intensify their hunt for the coveted trophy.

While table-toppers Lobi Stars will be guest of Wikki Tourists at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa Stadium in Bauchi, their closest rivals, Plateau United will host Dakkada FC at the New Jos Stadium. Only victory in Bauchi will keep Lobi on top, if Plateau United win against Dakkada.

Elsewhere, hungry Wolves will hope to feast on Katsina United who defeated them 2-1 in the reverse fixture in Katsina, Enugu Rangers will contend with Akwa United at the ‘cathedral’, Sunshine Stars will be in Nnewi to battle FC IfeanyiUbah, Heartland will aim to take their pound of flesh against Adamawa United in Okigwe, Pillars playing at home will seek revenge against MFM who trounced them 3-1 last Sunday in Lagos just as Rivers United will travel to Ilorin to square up against Kwara United.

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