The NPFL is back: The contenders, the pretenders and the outsiders

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As the Nigerian top flight gets underway, Samuel Babatunde delivers his verdict of the division's top dogs...and those who may struggle

The torturous wait for the launch of the Nigeria Professional Football League 2019/20 season is finally over with matchday one fixtures kicking off across the country this weekend.

While the reigning league champions Enyimba were not be in action on the opening day owing to their engagement on the continent, the other contenders for the crown had the opportunity to demonstrate their title credentials.

With the campaign now underway, Goal's NPFL correspondent Babatunde Samuel looks ahead to the season and delivers his big predictions.

The contenders

Although there are 20 teams participating in the league this season, only a quarter can be seen as genuine title contenders. Topping the list are the reigning champions Enyimba, who had a busy transfer window, beefing up an already star-studded squad.

The arrival of Abia Warriors defender Abiodun Adebayo is one of several notable arrivals.

Already with eight league titles in the bag, Enyimba are well placed to extend their record of triumphs on the domestic scene to nine.

Enyimba champion

However, the records are unfavourable for Enyimba when it comes to defending the league title, as they have disappointed in that regards in their last five attempts, finishing 2nd, 3rd (abridged format), 6th, 7th and 10th in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2016 respectively.

For this campaign, coach Usman Abd'Allah and his boys are looking to combine their quest for another NPFL title with a prospective elongated campaign in the Caf Confederation Cup, having eliminated TS Galaxy to advance to the group stage on Sunday.

Aside from Enyimba, Kano Pillars, Enugu Rangers, the duo of Akwa United and Lobi Stars are also contenders. Pillars, in partciular, are the third most successful team in the competition's history, and won the 2019 Federation Cup after finishing secon behind the People's Elephant in the Super Six.

Ibrahim Musa’s men will be particularly keen to win the title they last claimed in 2014, although their opening 0-0 home draw against Rivers United doesn't bode well.

For Lobi Stars, hiring an astute manager like Gbenga Ogunbote and recruiting experienced players like David Tyavkase, Sibi Gwar, and Sunday Akleche among others to join hotshots like Sikiru Alimi is a statement of intent.

For their part, Rangers were not as busy in the transfer market, although they have been able to keep the majority of their players, ensuring stability for the season ahead. Their performance to date in the Confederation Cup has also been encouraging.

Heartland

Pretenders

While various other sides may be being tipped as potential title candidates by other elements of the media, they look unlikely to be able to sustain a championship challenge for the duration of the campaign.

Heartland, for example, even with their new manager Fidelis Ilechukwu, may not be seen as real title contenders. The last time the Naze Millionaires were crowned league champions was in 1993, and despite the massive recruitment of players this time, the team can best be seen as pretenders for the title this season.

Their surprise 1-0 home defeat by MFM FC on the opening weekend highlighted some of the weaknesses that may hinder them this term.

Another team to consider is Plateau United who had it tough in the last campaign; escaping relegation by the whisker. Although an improved display is expected from the Peace Boys this time, they are not likely to repeat their 2017 NPFL-winning feat this season.

Rivers United, with Stanley Eguma, are also expected to do relatively well, even if winnign the title may be out of reach.

Akwa United vs. Wikki Tourist

Outsiders

For several sides this season, their primary focus will be remaining in the division

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It would be surprising if Adamawa United avoid an immediate return to the Nigeria National League, as while they are an exciting team to watch, they perhaps lack the nous to succeed in the top tier.

Jigawa Golden Stars are another team who could be dropping back to the NNL, and an opening-day 2-1 defeat by Wikki Tourists was a worrying sign of the battles to come.

Apart from the newly promoted teams, Tourists themselves also look like a team who could lose their Premier League status this term, having failed to make much of a mark during the transfer window. Their squad, which already looks light, may be found out this season.

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