COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Sunday will see the resumption of the 2016/2017 Nigeria Professional Football League season after a month-long break. It is one of the peculiar attractions of the NPFL that nothing is decided, or even looks definitive at this stage; well, except hapless and bumbling Remo Stars propping up the table!
However, even they are not yet doomed.
Nothing is settled at the top end of the table either, and indeed there is only a 16-point difference between both extremes, so not exactly a chasm. It is still a huge deficit to rein in, granted, but it would explain why even Lobi Stars, in 10th and habitual also-rans, continue to insist on their title ambitions.
Whatever may come in the second stanza, and there is sure to be intrigue aplenty, we can look back at the first half and see the patterns begin to form. Here are three things we’ve learnt so far.
Plateau United should be taken seriously
There are a number of factors that account for the unpredictability of the NPFL, chief among them the slight slacking off of both Enyimba and Kano Pillars. It has seen all semblance of hierarchy fly out the window. In theory, both those teams remain the biggest in the land, but they have been unable to come to grips with an increasingly volatile landscape.
It is precisely this sense of flux, of seizing the moment, that saw Enugu Rangers march to the title last season with an inscrutable inevitability. It may well do the same for Plateau United this year.
Perhaps we should have seen it coming. After a slightly wobbly start following promotion last term, they recovered admirably to finish way up in 8th place. This term, they have set about the challenge of the league with bloody-minded focus, and have goals from all departments of the team.
Interestingly, it is in the defence that they have really caught the eye, with Daniel Itodo a particular highlight, and Elisha Golbe doing the business on free kicks. Unsurprisingly, they have conceded the fewest number of goals in the league so far (12); do not mistake them for a defensive side though – they’ve also scored the most, with 27.
While there may be some comfort for the rest of the league in hoping for some sort of regression to the mean, Plateau United won’t go away any time soon.
Away wins are everything
Gone are the days when Kano Pillars romped their way to three consecutive titles on the back of a frankly awe-inspiring 12-year unbeaten home record. Not that teams are getting beat willy-nilly at home, of course. It is just that, by itself, it is no longer enough.
The last two league titles have been won by the team with the best record on its travels. Rangers came away with 15 last year to claim their seventh title, while Enyimba did the same the season before with a massive 23 point return (seven more than any other team managed) from away sojourns.
It is unlikely either of those numbers will be repeated this time around, but the pattern is already emerging. Every team that has managed to win a game on the road this season is in the top six. Clearly, this is both correlation and causation.
Coaches are starting to prove their worth
It is a trend that began last season, admittedly, but it has carried over into this. There has often been a perception of Nigerian domestic football as anti-intellectual, especially in the dugouts.
Sure enough, there have been managers successful for a sustained period, such as Kadiri Ikhana and Baba Ganaru, but having far and away the best teams in the competition makes it hard to decipher just how much of an input they had personally.
However, we have begun to see more of a style imprint from the technical crew on teams. Imama Amapakabo’s Rangers last season were slick and fearless, and though they fell away this season, it was clear his position had become untenable. The duo of Abdul Maikaba and Fidelis Ilechukwu are this season adding a feather to their caps.
Maikaba overachieved tremendously with an exciting but inexperienced Wikki Tourists side, guiding them to a place in the Caf Confederation Cup, before moving over to free-spending Akwa United.
The Promise Keepers underwhelmed hugely last term, finishing just two points clear of the drop. Maikaba has got them up to fifth at the midway point, and this despite a poor start – no wins in the opening five games – as he tried to come to grips with his team.
Ilechukwu’s MFM have developed a reputation for starting well before flaming out, but under him, the Olukoya Boys play an exciting, possession-based style and are prolific. The lack of staying power may not be unconnected to their relative youth, but you know what you’re getting when you watch them play.
The rise of the coaches: long may it continue.