After a long wait, action will finally return to the domestic football scene this weekend, with Week 1 matches of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) taking the centre stage across the country.
The curtain-raiser for the new season pitches newly-promoted sides, Plateau United and Niger Tornadoes in Jos on Saturday.
All the other opening-day fixtures are scheduled for Sunday.
Aside the fact that the league will start without a title sponsor, there are a couple of other changes that will greet the 2015/16 season, which many suggest would be more tightly contested compared to the past seasons.
One of such changes is the fact that Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, will witness Premier League action for the first time in nearly a decade.
Two teams – MFM FC and Ikorodu United – gained promotion to the elite division last season and the duo would now avail avid football supporters in Lagos the opportunity of enjoying the best of football on the local scene.
Like always, there has been much activity in the transfer window as the teams have been shopping for players they feel would help them compete favourably this term.
One of the heavy spenders in the transfer window is Ifeanyi Ubah FC, which went as far as Brazil to recruit new legs.
While the wait to know who will emerge champions of the 2015/16 season maybe delayed till the end of 38 weeks of action, some clubs already throw themselves up as title contenders.
Enyimba International are the defending champions and they will be starting their title defence away from home in Port Harcourt against newly christened Rivers United FC (formerly Dolphins FC).
While there is no assurance that the Peoples’ Elephant will retain the crown won last term, it will be suicidal to completely rule them out of contention this new season.
The Aba Landlords with as much as 14 fresh additions, including striker Ike Thankgod, midfielder Ikechukwu Ibenegbu and former Kano Pillars goalkeeper Theophilus Afelokhai look well-positioned for an astonishing eighth Premier League title.
Also Kano Pillars fit the bill as another title contender as the Pyramid Boys are keen to reclaim the number one position after surrendering the title to eventual winners Enyimba last season.
Alhough some reliable legs have left Kano Pillars, the team can still count on the few signings, massive government sponsorship and available stars, including legendary striker Mohammed Gambo and midfielder Rabiu Ali to challenge the title.
Another team that would pass for title contenders this season is Sunshine Stars. It is expected that the Akure Gunners would have learnt from their mistake last season, which saw them leading the log for a long time and ended up not just losing the title but also failing to snatch a continental ticket last season.
The hunger for silverware in Sunshine is evident in the influx of top players, including former Enyimba defender Markson Ojobo and the sustained presence of stars like midfielder Paul Onobi, goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa, among others.
Ifeanyi Ubah FC with the humongous money spent in the off season, Akwa United judging by their pre-season performances and Nasarawa United if they maintain the momentum, in which they ended last season, can also take the tag of title contenders.
While excitement is buzzing on the amount of stars still on display for the new season, it is worthy to note that some exciting players that add sparkle to the league last season will be missing in action.
Top on the list of missing stars are the attacking trio of Gbolahan Salami, Tunde Adeniji and Chisom Chikatara, who have all gone out to seek greener pastures in other leagues in Europe and North Africa.
Indeed the trio helped in reaching the cumulative 817 goals scored last season, which remains the second highest for all time.
Also, the erstwhile Warri Wolves duo of Etebo Oghenekaro and Azubuike Egwuekwe are also on the list of players that have taken their trades abroad.
As the season gets underway, PREMIUM TIMES felt the pulse of some of the actors for the new season.
The LMC boss, Shehu Dikko, is positive that successes recorded last season would be improved upon, adding that special attention would be paid to players’ welfare which was one of the sour points from last season.
Mr. Dikko also confirmed that a number of innovations had been put in the place to bring more people to the stadium and also encourage youthfulness in the teams.
“These are some of the innovations we have introduced to ensure a succession line for our football talents.
“And we are also working on acquiring from FIFA, the software for the Domestic Transfer Matching System (DTMS).
“This will lead to the introduction of a central transfer accounting clearing system to ensure the operation of a robust and transparent transfer of players within the NPFL and specifically the eliminations of third-party ownership and ensuring our clubs receive their transfer revenues directly” Dikko explained.
Also, Enyimba striker, Mfon Udoh, admits that it will be a tough season but was quick to state that the Peoples’ Elephant will hold their own regardless of the odds against them.
“Every team wants to beat Enyimba so we know we have to be on our toes always; becoming a champion is easier than remaining a champion.
“Successfully defending this title will require extra commitment, and we are ready to give it our best shot,” Mfon, who has the unique record of scoring the most goals (23) in a single league season, declared.
Jimmy Bello, goalkeeper for newly promoted Ikorodu United, expressed readiness of his team to seize the moment of playing on the biggest stage of Nigerian league football.
“It is a dream come true for us to be here now, and we are determined to make the best of it. We believe in ourselves, and we will surprise a lot of teams this year, starting from this Sunday,” the shot-stopper said.
Plateau United FC vs Niger Tornadoes FC
Giwa FC vs FC Ifeanyi Ubah
Nasarawa United FC vs MFM FC
Dolphins FC vs Enyimba Int’l FC
Shooting Stars FC vs Lobi Stars FC
Sunshine Stars FC vs Akwa United FC
Ikorodu United FC vs Abia Warriors FC
El-Kanemi Warriors FC vs Wikki Tourists FC
Heartland FC vs Warri Wolves FC
Kano Pillars FC vs Rangers Int’l FC
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