NPFL resumption – Race to glory and fight for survival

Nigeria's top-flight league, the Nigera Premier Football League (NPFL) ignites this weekend with a full slate of matches, as teams jostle for crucial positions on the league table.

The return comes after a brief hiatus to allow Rivers United to catch up on their backlog of games.

The Port Harcourt side, fresh off their continental exploits in the CAF Champions League and Confederations Cup, had fallen behind schedule due to their impressive international run.

Rangers players celebrate a goal
Rangers are top of the league

Also, there was the small matter of the President's Cup schedule that had to be dealt with.

This break ensures a level playing field for all teams, with everyone playing the same number of games as the season reaches its final stretch.

Dusting off my trusty crystal ball, I'm ready to make some bold predictions for the NPFL season finale.

NPFL is not for the faint-hearted

The Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) is one of the toughest in the world due to a lot of peculiarities.

With six games to go, the difference between the first and sixth-place teams is a mere five points, which means the run-in will be an interesting watch for fans and analysts alike.

Rangers International, who top the group, have a game at home against Bayelsa United, which on paper looks like an easy win for them. 

Meanwhile, Remo Stars, who are second and just one point behind the Enugu side, go to face fifth-placed Lobi Stars.

Top 6

Team Points Position
Rangers 57 1st
Remo Stars 56 2nd
Enyimba 53 3rd
Shooting Stars 52 4th
Lobi Stars 52 5th
Plateau United 50 6th

These games for Matchday 33 will determine a lot of things in the league standings. Enyimba, currently in third place, will have to contend with Abia Warriors in a crucial oriental derby match-up.

Shooting Stars are arguably the team of the second round with their impressive climb on the table.

NPFL
@ Remo Stars

Gbenga Ogunbote has been able to get his boys into top gear, moving them from mid-table to fourth place as they head to Katsina to chase a spot on the continent.

The next few weeks will be fascinating as the teams jostle for points at the top of the table and down at the lower rung

Goal rush for top scorer's gong

This season, the strike rate has been poor among strikers in the NPFL. In 32 matches, the top scorers, Sikiru Alimi of Remo Stars and Chijioke Mbaoma have only 14 goals – a poor return compared to the past few seasons.

The issue might be either that defences in the league have stepped up their game, or that strikers have been profligate in front of goal.

Despite the low return, Alimi and Mbaoma lead the pack with 14 goals each, ahead of Albert Hilary of Plateau United who has 12 goals. 

After 32 games, here are the top scorers in the league

Name Team Number of goals
Sikiru Alimi Remo Stars 14
Chijioke Mbaoma Enyimba 14
Albert Hilary Plateau United 12
*Robert Mizo Bayelsa United 10
Ibrahim Mustapha Kano Pillars 10
Godwin Obaje Rangers 6

*Mizo has since moved to Libya with Al Ahli Benghazi

Mustapha Ibrahim of Kano Pillars is on 10 goals while veteran striker Godwin Obaje has also started raking in the goals with Rangers alongside others.

The race to the top scorer's title will be tough, and I reckon the goal rush won't be steady due to tight defences as the league winds down.

However, I expect Mbaoma to give Alimi a run for his money, but eventually, the Remo Stars forward will likely win the top scorer's gong.

Relegation confirmed for Heartland and Gombe United, but who joins them?

For a few weeks now, Gombe United's fate has been sealed after their points deduction by the NPFL. 

Despite that, they have had a terrible campaign by any means, and are unarguably the poorest team in the league.

Gombe have scored a miserable 19 goals and have conceded 58, resulting in a negative goal difference of 39 — the highest in the league. For them, a trip down to the NNL has been sealed, and they will be joined by Heartland.

Team Points Position
Sunshine Stars 39 17th
Akwa United 37 18th
Heartland 29 19th
Gombe United 25 20th

For the Owerri side, it has been a season to forget as administrative issues and coaching problems have contributed to their dismal outing in the league. 

The back-and-forth between Christian Obi and Kennedy Boboye has had a detrimental effect on the team, as they are currently 19th on the table with 28 points. Akwa United are 18th and in dire straits at the moment with just six games to go.

Akwa United
Photo by Modzero

The Uyo side, champions in 2020/21, are in a race against time to save their season.

After a month's break, they are back to fight for survival with a trip to Lafia to face Lobi Stars. It will be a very difficult game, as Lobi, who are sixth on the log, still have title and continental aspirations of their own.

It doesn't look good for Mohammed Baba Ganaru and his wards, who know that any points dropped at this moment will mean a trip to perdition.

It will be interesting to see how it pans out for the two other teams that will go down with Heartland and Gombe, whom I've already tipped for relegation.

There is a three-point gap between Doma (15th) and Akwa United (18th), with Sunshine Stars and Bayelsa United sandwiched between them—both on 39 points. It is likely going to be one of the most intriguing relegation battles in a long while in the top flight.

Predictions

Title Winners

Rangers, who have topped the table, have been arguably the most consistent team in the second round of the season. 

I expect them to sustain their momentum, with 18 points at stake and a home game against Bayelsa United. I think they will remain in charge at the top after Matchday 33 and hold firm until the end of the season.

Remo Stars will finish behind Rangers based on the remaining fixtures, while Enyimba look likely to take third place and the last continental slot provided.

Remo Stars score their second goal against Rivers United
Mawuena wheels away after putting Rivers United 2-1 up

Relegation shots

Gombe are already a shoo-in for the drop alongside Heartland, who will join them in the Nigeria National League. It will be a titanic battle between Akwa United, Sunshine Stars, Bayelsa United, and Doma United to determine the four teams that will go down.

Though it looks precarious for Akwa United, I expect them to pull a miracle and beat the drop. 

This means two teams from the trio of Doma, Sunshine, and Bayelsa will go down. 

I reckon Sunshine will beat the drop, while Doma, who started the league on a bright note, and Bayelsa will unfortunately be relegated.

NPFL resumption – Race to glory and fight for survival
Andrew Randa

Andrew Randa is a veteran Nigerian sports journalist with over 20 years of experience covering the beautiful game across Africa. Andrew served as a Media Officer for Nigeria's U-20 Men's National Team for three years, offering a unique perspective on the future stars of Nigerian football.

Beyond reporting, Andrew is a pioneer in sports graphics creation within Nigeria. His expertise extends to sports kit design, making him a true multi-faceted talent in the African sports landscape.

Andrew's experience is vast, with collaborations encompassing prestigious names like Kickoff, SuperSport, the NFF (Nigeria Football Federation), and the NPFL (Nigeria Professional Football League)