A year after, pacesetters, relegation candidates swap places

By Clement Nwankpa Jr

How often have you been on transit and see inscriptions on commercial buses or trailers in Nigeria such as 'Slow and steady wins the race,' 'To be a man is not a day's job,' 'No food for a lazy man?' These are inscriptions that capture the toils and vicissitudes of life. But none can be more apt than the one that says, 'NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT.' This season has buttressed this.

Three out of the top-four teams this season battled relegation last season namely Plateau United, MFM FC and Akwa United. In the same vein, last season's top-three teams, Rangers, Rivers United and Wikki Tourists, spent the greater part of this season fighting for survival. While Rangers and Rivers United's predicament eased with Matchday 37 results, Wikki have to pray results on the last day are favourable to avoid the drop.


These were the nation's representatives on the continent this season. Of course, the implication of their positions last season was that they featured in the Super4 that heralded the new season where Rivers United emerged winners.

After the late equaliser against Enyimba last Sunday, Rangers fans were happy with the result that secured their NPFL status for another season. What an irony. This was a total contrast to last season's title-winning celebrations at 'The Cathedral.' In fact, it took new coach Sylvanus Okpala to take the team on a six-match unbeaten run to pull the Flying Antelopes out of the red zone. Before Okpala's advent, the team seemed headed for the drop.

More notable is that Rangers retained the bulk of the team that broke the 32-year jinx last season. The only notable absence being last season's best player, Chisom Egbuchulam, who moved abroad at the start of the season before Obinna Nwobodo also left during the campaign. So how did a championship winning team collapse to the point of almost going down?

Step up, Rivers United, a club that lost the title on last season's final day. The reward for that impressive showing was a pre-season tour of Spain after the team had recruited some of the best legs in the land. They were favourites to win the title even as many tipped them to do the nation proud on the continent. Their lethargic form this season means none of this was actualised. Instead, they languished in the relegation waters. A team capable of achieving much more but delivered far less.

And there is Wikki, yet to fully recover from the exit of coach Abdu Maikaba to Akwa United. Under Maikaba, Wikki made steady progress over three seasons culminating in the third place finish in 2016. Then Maikaba left with Alhassan 'Muazzam' Ibrahim to Akwa while last season's top scorer, Godwin Obaje left for FC Ifeanyiubah. The club never seemed to get over these exits as the replacements hardly fitted in. The implication is that if they don't win in Gombe and other results go their way, they could be competing in the NNL next season.

While last season's gladiators are struggling, those who barely survived last season are the ones setting the pace. What a swap in fortunes. Plateau United spent the better part of last season doing what they know how to do best, battling to keep their elite status. They had just clawed their way back to the NPFL and seemed primed for an instant drop till a late surge helped their cause. They ultimately finished 12th, four points above the red line.

But like Rangers, last season, they have led for the greater part of this season. Notably, last season's trophy presentation was in Enugu, but this season's curtain drawer will see Rangers file out against Plateau United in Jos. Last season's champions could watch Plateau United get crowned for the first time ever. 'The Cathedral' swapping roles with Rwang Pam Stadium.

Wikki's loss was Akwa's gain as Maikaba and 'Muazam' played key roles in the team's quest for a continental ticket. Akwa ended 14th last season just two points above the red line but they are involved in a two-horse race for the Confederation Cup ticket going into the last day. From the moment they beat Pillars in Kano, the Promise Keepers have kept the promise at the top rung of the ladder, a position they never got any mention last season.

Perhaps, the biggest leap was that of MFM. A cocktail of favourable results helped MFM avoid the drop on last season's last day. Direct competitors, Heartland abandoned their game in Jos and consequently lost all three points; meanwhile, against continental-seeking FC Ifeanyiubah in Lagos, MFM's key player, Ifeanyi Ifeanyi was sent off, FC Ifeanyiubah lost a penalty and MFM clung unto a goal lead. MFM finished on the same points with Warri Wolves but got the edge on goals difference. Wolves were relegated while MFM stayed up.

Fast forward, final day 2017, MFM will be guests of El-Kanemi and just a point less than Plateau United. The CAF Champions League ticket is already assured but if Plateau United blow it in Jos and the 'Miracle working God' sees MFM through in Maiduguri, Olukoya Boys could be Nigerian champions. What a gargantuan leap in just a year!Taking into cognizance the fact that MFM are not one of the biggest spenders in the league, relying more on raw talents since they cannot afford the established ones, their current position is laudable.

Now, what did last season's pacesetters do wrong that the less-fancied ones got right this season? Is it mere coincidence that two of last season's top-three (Rangers and Wikki) had management and technical crew changes at the middle of this campaign? On the contrary, this season's front runners have witnessed stability in the boardroom and on the touchline. The former have been embroiled in one crisis or the other while the latter have been free of such.

What of the recruitment policies? This season's title chasers didn't spend big. But they have adopted tactics that suit the talents within their disposal. At Plateau United, Kennedy Boboye played up Daniel Itodo's long throws; Emeka Umeh's physical presence and the set-pieces while MFM's Fidelis Ilechukwu harnessed the creativity and mobility of his young bunch. Cases of one using what he has to get what he wants.

Juxtapose these with Rivers United's expensively assembled squad that should be turbocharged after the trip to Spain, it could be argued that money does not always buy success. Determination, focus and an atmosphere devoid of rancour are key. These are ingredients that have produced what could be deemed an upset this season.

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