Who would have thought about it? That the 2018 NPFL season will end with 14 matches left to play and produce a run-away champion in the process.
That unanimous triumph meant Lobi Stars of Makurdi, who were top of the table as at matchday 24 with 43 points, also got the ticket to represent Nigeria at the CAF Champions League next season.
However, that’s long gone and what’s on the table now is another sole ticket to the CAF Confederations Cup for next season as well.
Of course, there is no back door through this, – the only means is the 2018 Aiteo Cup, and thirteen NPFL clubs and three other lower division sides are in the race for the prize as well as the ticket to the continent.
For the NPFL clubs, especially those who were in neck-and-neck race for the top spot before the abrupt end to the league, there’s no better place to turn their attention to than the oldest club competition in the country.
Formerly known as the Challenge Cup, the domestic club tournament has been rebirthed a number of times and the last time that happened; a five-year agreement signed by the NFF and the Aiteo Group in 2017 changed the face of the competition financially, ultimately having an effect on it’s branding.
Akwa United, who won the maiden rebranded edition of the Cup in 2017, won a cash prize of twenty-four million naira, plus a ticket to represent the country at the CAF Confederations Cup.
This year, the competition remains the same and perhaps, the impetus of the NPFL clubs are different. Regardless of any difference, hunger might not be enough to describe how much these clubs want this title. It’s more than a solace, it’s their last chance of victory.
With round 16 games set to kick off in round robin group stage system at four centres across the country, (Gombe, Kano, Lagos, Aba), all eyes will be on the likes of defending Champions Akwa United, Rivers United, Kano Pillars, Plateau United, the current campaigners in the CAF Confederations Cup Enyimba amongst other clubs to put up ….
As said earlier, the drive might be different even though they are all gunning for the same goal.
For Enyimba of Aba, who are currently in playing on the continent, the Aiteo Cup might just be a distraction to their current continental ambitions as they look set to replicate their age long feat in the Champions League on the second tier competition.
On one had, nothing is certain and their progress in the current season still hangs in the balance as they have two more steps to take before they even start thinking of getting into the final and winning it. So if nothing guaranteed, paving way for a reentry into the frame won’t be out of place. After all, they have the depth in squad to prosecute the two cups.
The lightweight on Enyimba might be a little bit heavy for a club like Akwa United who are the defending champions. The reason is not far-fetched, the pressure of successfully defending the title they won last year and to even go on and qualify for the main event, having failed to progress through the preliminaries this year.
But if it doesn’t sound boring or unattractive to them, they will be more than willing to get a second chance. Hopefully they don’t make the same mistakes that cost them this year.
How about Rangers of Enugu and Abia Warriors? It’s more than a piece of silverware and you can’t take it away from them too soon.
Up north, the Aiteo Cup means more to Kano Pillars who have been digging deep in order to restore some glory back into the club. Gone are the days of three consecutive NPFL titles, so they need something new to flaunt.
Arguably the most potent team left in the mix, Pillars still have the luxury of Junior Lokosa and other players who carried on the team in the league. It’s going to be a step into bigger things for them, and you can trust them to prepare for it.
Perhaps, Plateau United want this more than any other club, and if you care to ask Kennedy Boboye, who led the team to an NPFL triumph last year, the tactician definitely wants to win something again with the Jos side to prove his technical know how and burning desire to win.
Aside the desire to improve his CV, another thing Boboye would have in mind is to banish the memory of this season’s failure in the preliminaries. Worthy of shame it is that, the Champions of the NPFL could not make it past the preliminaries of Africa’s first tier Cup; the CAF Champions League. Boboye and Plateau United need more than a second chance to make it count.
On a warning note, Abubakar Bala’s Kwara United might become spoilers for other ambitious clubs. They’ve become stronger since the former Tornadoes manager joined forces with them and when it’s a cup competition in no man’s land, you never can tell who is better.
As far as upsets are concerned at this stage of the tournament, there are no other teams to beware of than Kogi United, Supreme Court FC and J. Atete FC who are all in the lower divisions.
The big boys better watch their stepping as they are spread across the four groups.
Gombe, Kano, Agege and Aba would be centres of attraction from Monday till Friday and whichever team has the will should go and begin to renovate their stadium.