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Akwa United prove they mean business in NPFL this season

17:44 GMT+3 17/01/2018
Federation Cup 2017 Final - Akwa United vs Niger Tornadoes
The Promise Keepers missed out on their target in 2017 but with recent acquisitions and a strong start, they look set to go for the jugular in 2018


Akwa United were left reeling at the end of the last Nigeria Professional Football League, when things didn't go to plan at the death of what had been an encouraging season.

The Promise Keepers appeared primed to finish in third place – a position they held for much of the year - only to be overtaken by Enyimba on the penultimate game of the campaign to ultimately finish fourth.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but they made amends by lifting the Federation Cup after seeing off Niger Tornadoes 4-3 via a penalty shootout, thus qualifying for the Caf Confederation Cup.

Credit has to go to coach Abdu Maikaba, whose possession-based philosophy was able to make 2017 a memorable year. Of course the former Wikki Tourists boss didn’t do it on his own, but achieved his aims with the right core of players including Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, Musa Newman, Christian Pyagbara and Ibrahim Alhassan.

This quartet were particularly efficient in retaining the ball and launching some of United's more offensive players in quick attacking moves. The goals...and the positive results...soon followed.

So efficient were these crop in having meaningful possession which in turn led to some swift attacking moves, hence goals and above favourable results.

However, the coach wasn't content to stop there...

This time Maikaba has gone further by acquiring even bigger names. 

Akwa United recruited 16 players during the off season, and while some might see it as excessive, it doesn't appear too out of place in the current climate, where ambition is rife across the division.

Of the 16, the big names are pacey left-back Gabriel Wassa from Rivers United, tough-tackling defensive midfielder Kelly Kester from seven-time NPFL champions Enyimba, fleet-footed Adeshina Gata from ABS FC and explosive forwards Victor Mbaoma and Ajibola Otegbeye – who scored a combined 24 goals for Remo Stars and Sunshine Stars respectively last season.

These were some of the best performers in the Nigerian top flight last term, and their acquisitions represent a sign of progress under Maikaba, who has credited Pep Guardiola to shaping his career as a manager.

Like Guardiola, Maikaba has a philosophy and buys players to suit his system. The result is that the new boys should quickly adapt to life at Akwa and ensure that the coach's style is maintained - and even refined - this term.

This was evident in their NPFL opener at the weekend, when Kester, in particular, excelled as Enugu Rangers were defeated 2-0.

Maikaba has a better blend of players and the squad has more depth. This should prove particularly important considering the rigorous league schedule and continental commitments.

The former Enyimba coach will now be able to rotate his squad with key players not necessarily suffering fatigue or burnout. The gaffer has, for instance, the luxury of picking from the ensemble forward line of Pyagbara, Newman, Gabriel Okechukwu, Mbaoma or Otegbeye to lead the attack in any fixture at home or on the road.

It's the kind of offensive strength in depth that few in the division can match.

No team has done better business then Akwa United in the Nigerian transfer window, and while the aim will be to finish in the continental places again, nothing is stopping this impressively assembled team from going for league honours this term.

While Rangers claimed that their mistakes let them down in their opening defeat, in truth, Sunday's showdown was an early insight into just how effective United could be this term.

This team is also good enough to do well in the Confederation Cup, and the offseason dealings should give everyone at the club hope that they can both enjoy a long run in continental competition and improve on last term's late-season disappointment.

The Uyo-based outfit have been on the steady uprise over the past couple of years and with things playing according to the script for them, 2018 looks certain to be a better year.