NPFL title race takes shape in home stretch; musical chairs for managers
After nearly three weeks of rest and recuperation to allow teams recover from the grueling schedule of two matches a week, the Nigeria Professional League returns this weekend for its home stretch.
Here are five things we can expect from the business end of the season.
1. Odey drama
Few can deny that MFM striker Stephen Odey has been the focal talking point of this season. It is no less than a man who has scored 14 goals in 19 games rightly deserves. But Odey saved his drama for midseason.
After a demanding half season of two games a week, travel across the length and breadth of the country and being the subject of some very close attention from defenders, the forward was one of those expected to use the break most prudently to recharge his batteries for a more difficult second round.
In the end, he returned without a contract, apologized to his club and says he is ready to continue his challenge on Mfon Udoh's 23-goal league scoring record.
The question is, will Odey have enough in the tank to do so? This is the brutal end half of the season and defenders will be on high alert against him. If he does manage to hit that mark despite all these troubles, he will be a great player indeed. If he exceeds it, we might as well grant him legendary status.
2. Fewer goals as attacks become more cautious
Speaking of goals, historically the second half of the season has always been marked by a slowdown in scoring.
Teams are either jostling for the title, continental places, or just plain doing their hardest to stave off relegation. A direct consequence is an overabundance of attacking caution, which allows defenders free, crunching reins on their opposition.
Odey and the rest of the Golden Boot-chasing posse are about to find life a tad more onerous in the coming weeks.
3. League organizers deal with crowd trouble
While the forwards and defenders are battling it out on the pitch, expect a few more pockets of crowd disturbances, especially near or around the bottom of the rung.
League organizers have done an exemplary job so far of stamping down on crowd violence in the grounds, but faced with the threat of relegation, fans sometimes tend to develop temporary amnesia towards any potential consequences.
It is that time of the year when the League Management Company (LMC) becomes extra vigilant and hits hard and quick at rule infractions. A few clubs already have suspended sentences hanging over their heads. Do not be surprised to see at least one team banished to a neutral ground for the rest of the season. If that happens, it could end up determining how the title race (and, in fact, other races) plays out.
4. Musical chairs for more coaches
So far, about four coaches have been fired, including last season's title-winner Imama Amapakabo.
There will be more to come. Again, look to the bottom rung of the table for the prospective managers on their way out.
Already Rangers technical director Christian Chukwu has made it clear to interim coach Agbo Chukwuma that his position is only as good as the results he squeezes out of his squad. So far, the Flying Antelopes have managed to crawl their way up from the bottom of the table and now sit one place above the drop zone, separated only by goal difference.
There is no job safety guaranteed for any coach whose team sits anywhere between 14th (Kano Pillars) and 20th position (Remo Stars).
5. Title race takes shape
At the more jolly end of the table, the jostling will be for the one team who can dislodge Plateau United from the summit.
Kennedy Boboye has already warned that there is disappointment in store for those who expect his team to falter.
"I know many are not expecting us to remain at the top. I have a team that will not be easy to push out. All I will say is keep watching," said the Plateau coach.
Below him, there are a number of clubs that will be doing more than just watching.
MFM FC are snapping at their heels and just two points behinds are El Kanemi. Niger Tornadoes are a further two points back. Akwa United trail by a full six points, but their coach Abdul Maikaba has been buoyed by new signings, including former junior international Harmony Ikande from Europe, and says his target is the title.
"These players were brought in to strengthen a few weak areas which we noticed during the first round," he said. "Now we can challenge for the title, or at least a continental place."
Be worried, Plateau United. Be very worried.
Colin Udoh is a Nigeria football correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ColinUdoh.