Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria is presently bubbling with life as six of the best clubs in the Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) are set to vie for continental tickets in the one-week Super 6 play-off which kicks-off today at the Mobolaji Johnson Sports Arena.
It will be recalled that in order to harmonise the football calendar in Nigeria with the one in Europe, the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the NPFL settled for an abridged league format instead of a full league. Consequently, the 20 clubs were divided into groups A and B with the understanding that the best three teams from each group would compete in a play-off competition to decide the overall champions.
At the end of the abridged season which kicked-off on January 8 with the opening match between Akwa United and Bendel Insurance in Uyo, defending champions, Rivers United, Lobi Stars and Sunshine Stars qualified for the Super 6 from Group B while Insurance, Enyimba and Remo Stars emerged from Group A.
At the beginning of the contest, Plateau United, Akwa United and 3SC in Group A and Enugu Rangers, Niger Tornadoes and Abia Warriors in Group B were also tipped as strong contenders for the available play-off tickets but they all fell by the wayside when the chips were really down. As a matter of fact, Tornadoes, Abia Warriors and 3SC faced relegation worries before they managed to keep their places in the topflight.
It must be reiterated that both Plateau United and Niger Tornadoes looked good to clinch qualification tickets until they suffered shocking home defeats against Sunshine Stars and Remo Stars respectively.
In fact, the battle for the Super 6 tickets went down the wire as the three clubs knew their fate on the final day of the league. While Rivers United, Lobi Stars and Bendel Insurance had secured their tickets before the last day, the trio of Enyimba, Remo Stars and Sunshine Stars had to wait till the final day.
To qualify, Insurance who ended the session unbeaten topped Group A after they amassed 34 points from eight wins and 10 draws, Remo Stars finished with 32 points after nine victories, six draws while former African champions, Enyimba came in third with 32 points from nine wins and five draws for a total of 32 points.
In group B, title holders Rivers United amassed 34 points from 9 victories and seven draws, Lobi Stars ended in second position with 30 points earned from nine wins and three draws just as Sunshine Stars collected 27 points from seven wins and six draws. Although Abia Warriors also ended with 27 points, the ‘Akure gunners’ snatched the last Group B ticket on a superior goal difference.
However, four other clubs, Nasarawa United, El-Kanemi Warriors in Group A and Wikki Tourists, Dakkada FC in Group B were relegated to the Nigerian National League (NNL) where they will be playing the next season.
Now that the men have been separated from the boys, the stage is set for another round of battles among the best six clubs who have their eyes on continental football next season. The first two clubs will represent Nigeria in the prestigious CAF Champions League while the third placed team would go for the second tier CAF Confederation Cup.
Therefore, it promises to be one week of football extravaganza as the league organisers have said they are doing everything possible to put up a good show. Head of Operations of IMC, Davidson Owumi, said plans for a successful Play-off have reached advanced stage and the Draw event which was held yesterday at GTI Group Headquarters in Lagos marked the official commencement of the season ending event.
“Invitations have been sent out to our partner media organisations and dignitaries that would grace the occasion”, Owumi said through the IMC Media.
And to ensure that the best officiating is observed at the competition, the NFF through its referees appointment committee has listed some of the best and highest ranking referees in the country to handle the matches.
According to the release by the committee, Patience Ndidi Madu, Ogabor Joseph, Kassimm Abdulasalam, Bashir Saihu, Abduimalik Madaki, Ridwan Ayeni, Babayanju Shaheed, Abubakar Abudullahi will be assisted by Samuel Pwadwatukam, Hope Igho, Usman Abdul Majid, Ahmad T. Mustapha, Muhammed Yakubu, Digbori Tejiri, Abibat Yusuf and Moses Aiayemola to officiate the potentially explosive matches.
To assess the performance of the referees to make sure they perform optimally, the quartet of retired FIFA referees, Felicia Okwugba, Peter Edibi, Emmanuel Emiere and Oba James Adeniran have been appointed to serve as assessors.
Furthermore, the organisers have announced that all the matches would be televised live on Supersport to advertise the elite division of the Nigerian football league to the world.
Another interesting thing about the competition is that apart from Remo Stars and Sunshine Stars, the other four clubs are former winners of the Nigerian league. The most illustrious of them all is Enyimba who have won eight titles with their last coming in 2019. The ‘Peoples elephants’ are followed by Bendel Insurance who were champions in 1973 and 1979. Meanwhile, Lobi Stars and Rivers United have one title each which they won in 1999 and 2022 respectively.
So, while Enyimba are in the hunt for a ninth title, Insurance are seeking a third, both Lobi Stars and Rivers are aiming for their second crown while the duo of Remo Stars and Sunshine Stars who have tasted continental football will be in search of a first league title.
It is also important to note that while Enyimba, Lobi Stars, Remo Stars and Sunshine Stars who were kicked-out of the Federation Cup have only the league title to chase, Bendel Insurance who are in imperious form have a chance to win two trophies after they defeated Warri Wolves on Thursday to reach the finals of this year’s competition.
The Super Six play-off which will draw the curtains on the 2023 NPFL season ends on Sunday, June 11 in Lagos.