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NPFL: Rivers focus on title as continental qualifications, relegation battle hot up

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By George Akpayen and Andrew Randa, LMC

The Nigeria Professional Football League 2021/22 season enters its deep end with the title race looking almost sewn up by Rivers United, while the battle for survival is very much alive.

This weekend, Matchday 33 offers tantalizing fixtures with Rivers United looking to re-open a possible 10-point lead at the summit when they play host to Abia Warriors who are looking over their shoulders at the other end of the standings. Log leaders Rivers United will miss the service of centre-back Fabian Nworie as he is suspended for the game, while the Warriors will be without the duo of Chigozie Umeh and Gabriel Innocent for the trip to Port Harcourt as they are also suspended for card accumulation.

United’s striker, Nyima Nwagua however says the team are not thinking of being title winners but focusing on winning all their remaining games.

Nwagua told www.npfl.ng that his teammates and himself are more focused now than when the league started.

“We are focused on our remaining matches. We have done well to this point and we will not allow complacency to set in. We (the players) are not taking anything for granted”, said Nwagua, who joined the Pride of Rivers from Kano Pillars.

“I know we are not there yet, we are not satisfied. There are still six matches to go. This is football and you do not take things for granted. I have not seen Rivers United crested on the trophy so we keep working because we are not there yet.

“For this, we will keep working until the Nigeria Football Federation, the League Management Company and the whole of Nigeria come to Port-Harcourt to give us the trophy.

“It is at that point we will relax and know we have won the title”, he further said.

The 28-year-old, who has scored five goals for the Port-Harcourt side, enthused that the calibre of players in the team and the bond between them is the major factor in their charge to the title.

“I didn’t want to leave Pillars but after I won the Federation Cup title with them I decided to seek a new challenge and come to Rivers who have been seeking me out for a while”, he revealed.

“I am enjoying my time here and I must say the secret behind our good form this season has been God, hard work and dedication.

“The crop of players now at Rivers United, just like the coaches will always say, we are willing to learn, we are willing to work and we are willing to learn.

“That has been our secret and we have been working hard and you know with God at some point he will start giving you what you worked for. Hard work has kept us this far” “Nwagua added.

Goal celebration by Dakkada FC on Matchday 30 in Uyo. Rivers United won 3-2. Photo: LMC

After scraping to a 1-0 win over Kano Pillars last time in front of their supporters in Jos, second-placed Plateau United will take a trip to Ibadan to face Shooting Stars, who could be sucked into the deep-end of the league table should they drop points. 3SC have managed just one win in their last nine league meetings with Plateau United (W1 D3 L5). The Ibadan club have struggled for form in their last five matches (D2 L3) and will be without one of their key men Gafar Olafimihan, who will sit this out owing to suspension from accumulated yellow cards.

At the bottom end of the table, one match might not catch the fancy of everyone but Lobi Stars versus Heartland throws up a double-edged relegation situation for two sides hoping to beat the drop as the Matchdays thin out. In the last set of games, both teams earned themselves decent results to keep their hope of escaping from relegation alive – Lobi held MFM in Ijebu Ode, while Heartland edged Akwa United 1-0 in Owerri. However, Heartland’s last eight trips to Lobi have all ended in defeat.

The last-two placed clubs in the league standings –  Dakkada FC and MFM – have difficult matches to navigate this Sunday when they respectively face Gombe United and Katsina United on the road. Both clubs have managed to claim a paltry combined seven points in away matches – MFM with six and Dakkada managing just one (the worst in the division this season). Dakkada and MFM face two teams who have intimidating home records this term – Gombe United on a run of 16 straight home matches without defeat, and Katsina United with no losses in 24 of their last 26 home games.

The race for third place also takes shape with eight clubs in the hunt to pick a CAF Confederation Cup spot from the league. In the mix for third spot are Rangers, Remo Stars, Kwara United, Enyimba, Sunshine Stars, Akwa United, Gombe United and Wikki Tourists.

Four of the eight clubs in this race will face off this weekend. On Saturday, Enyimba play hosts to Kwara United who managed just a draw in their last 12 visits to Aba (D1 L11). Kwara United will make the trip without suspended Issa Adeshina Gata and the People’s Elephant could have their leading scorer Victor Mbaoma back in their Matchday squad after international duty with the Super Eagles. At the Nest of Champions in Uyo, high-flying Remo Stars face Akwa United who they have never beaten in the division in three meetings. Akwa United have been inconsistent in recent matches winning just once in their last seven (W1 D3 L3).

Whatever happens in the 10 matches this weekend, Rivers United will keep the top spot and Plateau United will remain in second place. But there could be switch of places in the other 18 positions as the season will thereafter be down to five Matchdays to go.

Matchday 33 fixtures

Saturday, 11th June 2022
Enyimba v Kwara United

Sunday, 12th June 2022
Sunshine Stars v Niger Tornadoes, Katsina United v MFM , Lobi Stars v Heartland, Akwa United v Remo Stars, Gombe United v Dakkada, Shooting Stars v Plateau United, Kano Pillars v Wikki Tourists, Rivers United v Abia Warriors, Nasarawa United v Rangers

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