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Rivers United set to benefit from accumulated fixtures

During their campaign in the 2024 CAF Confederation Cup, Rivers United were hovering around the relegation zone in the ongoing Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL)…

During their campaign in the 2024 CAF Confederation Cup, Rivers United were hovering around the relegation zone in the ongoing Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season. Those who are not conversant with the domestic league expressed fears that the ‘Pride of Rivers’ might be relegated at the end of the season. However, for those of us who have been following the league for decades, there was nothing to worry about because we knew things would change dramatically for Rivers United once they begin to play their outstanding fixtures.

Before we go into how Rivers United are poised to benefit from the fixtures they accumulated in the course of their continental engagements, let us refresh our memories with an extract from my article which was published in December 2023 in Daily Trust Sunday, titled “Rivers United enjoying another spell of accumulated fixtures.”

Without any doubt, one of the recurring problems in the Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL)  fixtures is accumulation for clubs that are taking part in continental competitions. This is one practice that may not be intentional, but over the years, it has placed some clubs in an advantageous position over their rivals in the NPFL.

Over the years, the big clubs like Enyimba and Rivers United have been the biggest beneficiaries of this practice that has come to stay due to the failure of the league organisers to reschedule matches in good time to avoid any unnecessary backlog. Once they qualify to represent Nigeria in the continent, the ‘continental clubs’ chances of qualifying again in the following year become really high, especially if they manage to reach the group stages. This, however, is not limited to Enyimba and Rivers United as any other club that picks continental tickets and can survive the preliminary stages is bound to benefit from the avoidable match accumulation.

However, it must be said unequivocally that fixtures gathering due to continental engagements of some NPFL clubs is an indirect way of robbing rival clubs of the league title because outstanding matches make it possible for those lucky clubs that had accumulated them to easily leapfrog even those who were in prime positions to win the available continental tickets.

It is, for this reason, that even as the likes of Remo Stars, Doma United and Lobi Stars are leading the table presently, the top of the table will change dramatically once Rivers United play their outstanding matches. Once matches are accumulated in the NPFL, the beneficiaries do everything humanly possible to win. Whether they play home or away, they see the outstanding matches as the gateway to another continental ticket. Therefore, they stop at nothing to keep mopping up the points.

At the moment, Rivers United are 17th on the log with 15 points from only 10 matches, while the table-topping Remo Stars have 29 points from 15 matches. Only nine points are separating Remo Stars from Rivers United but the ‘Pride of Rivers’ who need only nine points to catch up with the Ikenne-based side have a possible 15 points waiting to be picked up. So, by the time Rivers United will play their five outstanding matches, clubs like Doma United, Lobi Stars, Insurance, Enyimba, Plateau United, Kano Pillars and Abia Warriors would be in serious trouble. Five outstanding matches is no doubt a big advantage to Rivers United.

Like a man who saw tomorrow, what I said long ago is coming to pass now because Rivers United, having exited the Confederation in the quarterfinal in the hands of title holders USM Algers, are set to mop up points in their outstanding fixtures. As feared by many, Rivers United clearly have the advantage over other clubs in the run-up to the NPFL title. This has sent shivers down the spines of the clubs that are fighting hard to end the season with continental tickets.

Already, the NPFL has concluded plans for the league to embark on a temporary break after today’s week 32 matches to pave the way for Rivers United to play their five outstanding matches. When I wrote the first article, they had five outstanding matches. Interestingly, as I write the second piece today, they still have five outstanding matches to play.

To ease the logistics of travelling, the NPFL has fixed dates for the matches based on the proximity of the club’s opponents. Thus, Rivers United will play four straight-away matches at Remo Stars (Matchday 21, May 5), Kwara United (Matchday 23, May 8), Sunshine Stars (Matchday 27, May 11) and Abia Warriors (Matchday 29, May 15). Rivers United will round off their outstanding fixtures with Matchday 22 clash with Niger Tornadoes on May 18.

Looking at the strength of the clubs that Rivers United will be visiting, one may be tempted to say it will be impossible for them to pick reasonable points on the road but this is a Nigerian league where everything is possible. It is said that in Nigeria, money answers all things. It is said Rivers United, who are from an oil-rich state, have the financial muscle to oil the wheels of victory.

Mathematically, Rivers United are top of the table because the leaders Enugu Rangers have 54 points from 31 matches, but United have 40 points from 26 matches. Therefore, if 15 points from their five outstanding matches are added to their total haul presently, they will have 55 points, one more than Rangers.

So, as the league embarks on break after today’s matches, the top four clubs, Rangers, Remo Stars, Enyimba and Lobi Stars will begin to over their shoulders because Rivers United will be coming up strongly to dislodge all or at least one of them. Like I said earlier, even apart from money, Rivers United have proven over time that they are one of the most formidable clubs in the NPFL. Even though they are yet to win a continental title, Rivers United have been consistent in the continent. Therefore, nobody should dismiss their chances of picking another continental ticket with a wave of the hand. Right now, they are only 12 points adrift of the third and fourth-placed Enyimba and Lobi Stars of Makurdi. So, four victories in their five outstanding fixtures will put them in good stead for a continental ticket.

So, when action resumes on the weekend of May 25-26, six matches will be left to conclude the season. That is when the real drama will play out because it will be final showdown for clubs in contention for continental tickets and those fighting to survive the drop. As we all know, at such desperate times, unwholesome practices are perpetrated by clubs, match officials and even the league organisers.

However, the present board of the NPFL has indeed tried to sanitise the league by promptly applying punitive measures against those who are hell-bent on bringing the NPFL into disrepute. Therefore, Nigerians are hoping that they will continue to monitor match venues to nip in the bud clubs’ attempts to fix matches at this critical moment. It is only when we produce true champions that Nigeria can stand any chance of reclaiming its lost glory in CAF inter-club competitions. The last time a Nigerian club won any CAF Cup was 20 years ago when Enyimba FC won their second Champions League trophy in 2004 in Abuja.

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