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Will Rivers United swallow ‘elephants’ to retain league title?

TDavid Ngobuahe last round of matches at the ongoing Nigeria Premier League (NPL) Championship Play-Off which started on June 3 will hold today at the…

TDavid Ngobuahe last round of matches at the ongoing Nigeria Premier League (NPL) Championship Play-Off which started on June 3 will hold today at the Mobolaji Johnson Stadium in Lagos and the final match of the day between Enyimba and defending champions, Rivers United, will decide who takes home the 2023 title. The match promises to be a befitting end to a highly competitive Play-Off competition.

For those who do not know, the Championship Play-Off or Super Six as many may wish to call it is a season ending competition being played among six clubs that emerged from Group A and Group B to decide who wins this year’s NPL title. While Insurance, Enyimba and Remo Stars qualified from Group A, Rivers United, Lobi Stars and Sunshine Stars emerged from Group B.

It is also important to note that the season was abridged to harmonise the domestic calendar with the one in Europe. Over the years, our league was consistently among the last to start which made it impossible for it to end and begin at the same time with the developed football leagues of the world.

This unfortunate situation had had adverse effects on Nigerian clubs as they yearly struggled and failed at the continental level because of lack of competitive football before the commencement of the CAF competitions. In addition, it was difficult for local players to attend trials in foreign clubs.

Therefore, when Hon. Gbenga Elegbeleye was appointed Chairman of the Interim Management Committee (IMC), he and his members opted for an abridged league season in order to finish in time for NPFL clubs to have enough time to prepare for continental competitions and the domestic league. The proposal was met with resistance by almost all the clubs that preferred to play a full season. However, they were prevailed upon by superior powers to go along with the IMC.

That was what gave birth to the Championship Play-Off which we are witnessing. At the end of proceedings today, the first two clubs will represent Nigeria in next year’s CAF Champions League while the club that finishes in third place will take home one of the Confederation Cup tickets.

It is now an open secret that the eventual winner of the title and the N100m at stake will come from one of the two top clubs, Enyimba and Rivers United. Interestingly, it is their match that will draw curtains on what has been a hectic season for the clubs, especially those taking part in the NPL Championship Play-Off.

I know most of you are already used to the acronym of NPFL but I am not wrong by referring to the league as NPL because the IMC has changed the nomenclature of the league from professional football league to Premier League. The logo of the league too has changed. In all these, there was no prior notice from the IMC but this is Nigeria. It is always what it is.

Although all eyes will be on the last match of the day between the two giants of the NPL, there is another interesting fixture between Remo Stars and Bendel Insurance where the winner of the third continental ticket will emerge. In fact, the final table might change dramatically today depending on the result of the last match between Rivers United and Enyimba.

We are good at permutations, so let’s look at it this way. If either Rivers United or Enyimba lose and Remo Stars win convincingly against Bendel Insurance, the Ikenne based side might leapfrog one of the two top clubs to finish in second position. Again, in case of a draw result between Enyimba and Rivers United, Remo Stars who are on six points can finish second, if they produce superior goal advantage.

And in case of a draw in the two matches under preview, it will be Enyimba, Rivers United and Remo Stars for the continent. I truly feel for Bendel Insurance because after putting in so much, they may not qualify to play continental football next season. After going 18 matches unbeaten in the abridged season, they recorded three unbeaten runs in the Play-Off before they were finally brought down to earth by champions Rivers United who beat them 2-1 on Friday.

It has been a stupendous performance from Insurance because if you include their matches in the Federation Cup where they have reached the finals, they have been unbeaten in 25 matches. If with such quality they fail to qualify for the continent, one can only imagine what would be their pain.

Indeed, it will be injustice inflicted on them by the ‘god of soccer.’ So, if they are to prove that their marvellous performance in the abridged session wasn’t a fluke, they must beat Remo Stars with at least four goals without conceding any. This is no doubt a herculean task for the ‘Arsenals of Benin’.

Meanwhile, the other match between bottom teams, Sunshine Stars and Lobi Stars is obviously a dead rubber contest because both clubs had dropped out of the continental race even before MatchDay 3. With only two points from a possible 12, there is no miracle that will take them to the continent. They can only realise their continental ambition, if three of the top four clubs decide to drop out of the race. You and I know this is not possible.

Therefore, as stated earlier, the centre of attraction today will be the second match of the day between CAF Confederation hopefuls Remo Stars and Bendel Insurance and final match of the league season pitching heavyweights, Enyimba against Rivers United. The ‘Pride of Rivers’ who reached the quarter-finals of this year’s Confederation Cup must do something extraordinary to retain their title.

But it will be an uphill task because their opponents, who have won eight titles, the highest so far by any Nigerian club, appear to have hit form at the right time and are desperate to add to their silverwares. Considering the calibre of players both teams parade, it will no doubt be a feisty affair at the Mobolaji Johnson Sports arena. Therefore, almost every football fan in Nigeria is waiting with bated breaths to see if Rivers will unite to swallow the ‘people’s elephants’ for a second league title.

Meanwhile, it is not possible to end this piece without a word of commendation for the IMC for doing everything possible to conclude the 2023 season today. Despite daunting challenges, Elegbeleye and his lieutenants persevered to succeed where their predecessors had failed.

However, they must sustain and immediately build on the gains made. If at the end of the day, the 2024 season of the NPL does not commence at the same time with the top five leagues in Europe (EPL, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Liguria 1 and Serie A) what they have done would amount to a beautiful nonsense.

Indeed, achievements like the beaming of the Championship Play-Off matches live to the world on one of the world’s most watched sports channels Supersport has endeared the IMC to the hearts of most Nigerian football stakeholders. However, it is not yet Uhuru. There is so much to be done to bring the NPL to world standard.

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