The Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) kicked off on January 8, 2023 with optimism and self-belief oozing from the camps of the 20 clubs that are competing in the abridged league.
This infectious optimism was shared by all including the four clubs, debutants Doma United and the trio of Bendel Insurance, Bayelsa United and El-Kanemi Warriors who were returning to elite football after some years in the lower divisions.
While ‘new boys’ Bendel Insurance and El-Kanemi Warriors were pitched in Group A along with Enyimba, Akwa United, Nasarawa United, Remo Stars, Plateau United, Gombe United, 3SC, Kwara United, Bayelsa United and Doma United found themselves in Group B with experienced campaigners like the defending champions, Rivers United, Enugu Rangers, Lobi Stars, Sunshine Stars, Niger Tornadoes, Wikki Tourists, Dakkada and Abia Warriors.
Interestingly, like the other competitors, the quartet exuded so much confidence before kick-off. However, at the conclusion of the first round of the season, the ‘new boys’ have recorded mixed fortunes.
While Bendel Insurance, have emerged the surprise team of the season with an unbeaten record to show for their outstanding performances, Doma United too have not fared badly but the duo of El-Kanemi Warriors and Bayelsa United is seriously gasping for breath.
Therefore, as the NPFL clubs prepare to return for the concluding part of the 2023 season, Trust Sports takes a look at how the ‘new boys’ have performed against their more illustrious opponents in the first stanza of the season.
Group A leaders, Bendel Insurance made a winning return to the NPFL after they stunned Akwa United 2-0 in the season opener at the ‘Nest of Champions’ in Uyo.
The ‘Benin Arsenal’ who were returning to the Nigerian topflight for the first time in three years, seven months, and 19 days needed only 35 minutes to open their account through the season’s leading goal scorer, Imade Osehenkhoe.
Buoyed by the stunning away victory, Insurance have remained in imperious form and are the only side that is yet to taste defeat this season. Out of the nine matches played before the break, the Monday Odigie led team won seven and drew two away at 3SC and Gombe United to top their group with 23 points.
However, the story of El-Kanemi Warriors whose name is synonymous with strength and bravery is quite pathetic as they kicked off their campaign with a 2-0 loss at Remo Stars.
The former FA Cup winners have had a poor season by all standards, recording just one win obtained in a 2-1 victory over fellow strugglers Nasarawa United back in January.
They are therefore at the base of Group A with a paltry five points garnered from a win, two draws and six losses suffered at home and away.
It will be recalled that due to this poor performance, the entire technical crew has been sacked by the management with a view to hiring a more competent coach to revive the fortunes of the team.
In a chat with Trust Sports, the club’s media officer, Tahiru Bala, said the management is keen to keep the club afloat when the league resumes.
“You are aware that the entire coaching crew was sacked and an interim coach was brought on. Very soon, we will announce a new coach that will take everyone by surprise.
“The players are training very hard now and we are very hopeful that things will get better for us when the league resumes,” he assured.
In Group B, the story of Bayelsa United who returned to Nigeria’s top flight after seven years in the lower division is also not encouraging. They kicked off their season with a 1-1 draw against neighbours, Dakkada FC and have gone on to manage four additional draws, one victory over visiting Wikki Tourists while losing three matches.
The current FA Cup holders are not far away from the relegation zone as they are 8th on the Group B table with only eight points. They are presently above Wikki Tourists on a superior head-to-head.
Last month, things moved from bad to worse for the Tiebowei Dipreye tutored side when they were docked three points and three goals as well by the league organisers following breaches of the NPFL framework in their 1-1 draw with Doma United.
However, the Club’s Media Officer, Jackson Hananeel told Trust Sports that the target of Bayelsa United this season is not to win the league but remain in the Nigerian topflight.
He further said efforts are in top gear to beef up the squad while assuring that there will be massive improvement in the team when the league resumes after the General Elections.
“As we speak, we are trying to beef up the team ahead of the league resumption. The results we had during the first stanza weren’t palatable at all. We were even docked three points which we have appealed against but the IMC is yet to hear the matter.
“However, we are leaving nothing to chance. Even before the start of the season, it wasn’t about winning the league as our priority is to remain in the league.
“We have new players that have come into the team and when the league resumes, we are going to see a huge improvement. Surely, we are going to do better than what we did in the first stanza,” he enthused.
El-Kanemi Warriors and Bayelsa United are literally struggling to cope with life in the elite division but debutants, Doma United have successfully punched above their weight in Group B.
Even as newcomers, the ‘Savannah scorpions’ have recorded encouraging results after three wins, three draws and three losses to earn 12 points from nine matches played before the break.
One of the two privately owned clubs in the NPFL, Doma United secured their first ever victory in the league with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Dakkada FC and a few weeks later, they shocked defending champions Rivers United and Akwa United with 2-1 and 1-0 wins respectively.
Coach Onigbinde Akinade is reported to have said he is struggling to keep his core players ahead of the league resumption as a number of their players have caught the eyes of bigger clubs.
“We have some of our boys being monitored by some other clubs. It is expected as they are doing well considering this is our debut appearance in the league.
“We are looking forward to making a huge statement at the end of season as we intend to remain in the league and from there on improve our fortunes. We are capable and we will do it, “he said.
From the foregoing, when the second stanza of the league resumes after the Gubernatorial and State Assembly elections slated for March 18, all eyes will be on the quartet to see how each will end the race.
However, it is already an open secret that Bendel Insurance and Doma United’s chances of making it to the Super 6 are glaring but El-Kanemi Warriors and Bayelsa United who moaned and groaned from one defeat to another are sure candidates for relegation dogfight.