The wait is finally over as action returns to the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) this weekend with 10 matches on Match Day 1 of the 2017/2018 season.
The competition will get underway with Katsina United taking on Kano Pillars in the opening match on Saturday, while the rest nine matches will be played on Sunday.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the 2017/2018 NPFL season will be the 46th edition of the top-flight league for Association Football clubs, since its establishment in 1972.
It will also be the 27th since the rebranding of the league as the “Professional League’’.
Plateau United FC were crowned champions of the 2016/2017 NPFL season on Sept. 9, 2017 after a 2-0 victory over Rangers International FC of Enugu in Jos.
Rangers had won the previous edition in 2015/2016, for their seventh league title and first since 1984.
Plateau United’s win was however the club’s first-ever title, which came in their second season after returning to the top-flight, following an earlier demotion.
A total of 20 clubs will be contesting in the league this season, including 16 teams from the previous season and four clubs promoted from the 2016/2017 Nigeria National League (NNL).
Newly-promoted team Kwara United will host Niger Tornadoes in Ilorin, while Go Round FC will face Wikki Tourists in Bauchi for their first-ever match in Nigeria’s top-flight.
Aiteo Cup champions Akwa United will host Rangers International in Uyo.
With Katsina United playing host to four-time champions Kano Pillars at the Muhammadu Dikko Stadium on Saturday, a fitting opening game is well assured.
Kano Pillars appear fired up for the new season with their eye-catching pre-season form, and they will be looking to avoid defeat this time around after falling 0-1 last season.
They won both the Ahlan Cup and Gold Cup in pre-season, and their non-involvement in CAF club competitions could be an advantage in comparison to their fiercest challengers.
Coached by Ibrahim Musa, Kano Pillars have signed quality players such as Stephen Eze, Nzube Anaezemba and Ifeanyi Nweke.
Also added to their smart recruitment is the fact that the club management has increased the team’s bonus for away wins this season, a major incentive for success.
On their part, Katsina United have named Abdullahi Biffo as the club’s new head coach after the former Abia Warriors’ tactician ended his negotiations with Enyimba abruptly.
The club also brought in some quality players; including a new technical crew and it is hoped this will translate to a naturally-improved performance in the league compared to last season.
The club’s Chairman, Aminu Kurfi, explained on the club’s website that the re-organisation of the playing staff was to ensure the club enjoyed stability in its second NPFL stint.
However, they will be without the services of more than 10 players from last season, while the duo of Chinedu Udechukwu and Obinna Eleje left after the expiration of their contract.
The Katsina outfit released Ado Ali, Mubarak Shehu, John Daddy, Suleiman Sarki, Abdullahi Musa, Ibrahim Sanusi and Kabir Junaid, while midfielder Timothy Danladi is away on African Nations Championship (CHAN) duties.
Katsina United ended last season’s campaign 16th in the league standings with 52 points from 38 games.
One match that will draw tremendous attention is the one between Plateau United who begin their title defence in Lafia against hosts Nasarawa United.
Reigning champions Plateau United could be gunning for a second successive title after a fine campaign last term.
They have undergone some changes during the off-season, but retained the spine of the team from last season, including coach Kennedy Boboye, Dele Ajiboye, Daniel Itodo, Peter Eneji and Emeka Umeh.
The champions have recruited smartly, adding the likes of Okiemute Odah, Terna Suswam, Charles Henlon and King Osanga as they prepare for a CAF Champions League challenge.
The club sponsors handsomely rewarded the team for bringing glory to the state last season, and that financial support could continue this season, driving them to further glory.
But their title defence chase will undergo a big test as they play away from home against the Solid Miners in Lafia.
Kennedy Boboye led his side to a barren draw in Lafia last season and will be hoping for a better result this time around.
Recently, Nasarawa United have improved, bringing some few quality players as well and considering their current form they should be a hard nut to crack at home.
Kabiru Dogo, the Head Coach, told NAN recently that he would do all he could to motivate his players to ensure that the club wins the league this season.
“I will do all I can to motivate the players to maintain a winning streak all throughout the season, starting from the first home match against defending champions Plateau United.
“We did not do badly last season. Out of 20 clubs, we came fifth. The only thing was that we did not win either the league or secure a continental spot. But I want to assure that we will come out fighting hard this season.
“Plateau United are a very good team and we are happy to be playing them first. They are our neighbours.
“We know it will be a difficult game, but we plan to approach the game with a positive mindset so as to secure the three points and kickstart our journey towards the title,’’ Dogo said.
The Solid Miners finished fifth in the 2016/2017 NPFL season.
Rivers United will face El-Kanemi Warriors in one of the stand-out fixtures of the opening weekend of the NPFL campaign at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt.
United were largely unimpressive last season.
Only a late surge preventing a shock relegation to the second tier of Nigerian football in a season in which they flew the flag of the nation in the CAF Champions League.
Reinforcements have since been made in areas of perceived weakness with areas of strength consolidated.
El-Kanemi Warriors completed arguably the biggest coup of the transfer window, from a coaching perspective.
They snapped up Imama Amapakabo who was unceremoniously hounded out at Rangers after leading them to a first league title in over three decades.
Amapakabo, a keen student of the game, is one of the most astute tacticians in the land, and the youthful trainer is currently in Morocco on national assignment with the Super Eagles.
Amapakabo loves attacking football, irrespective of where the game is played, and it will be no real surprise to see the “Borno Army’’ stun the Yakubu Gowon Stadium crowd.
“I believe that football is football anywhere and I believe that you could get results anywhere if you play to win.
“I don’t come with a defensive structure to play any game.
“I come out to play and that is my philosophy,” Amapakabo was quoted as saying on the club’s website.
Both sides have shared the spoils in their recent meetings with a 2-1 win apiece last season.
Rivers United, however, will be gunning for maximum points and will be buoyed by recent success at the just-concluded Garden City pre-season tournament in Port Harcourt.
United came out tops in the four-team competition, beating Abia Warriors in the final decided at the Sharks FC Stadium.
Captain of United, Festus Austin says victory on Sunday is a major priority.
“The first match is very important and we want all three points.
“We are going to defeat El-Kanemi Warriors in Port Harcourt,” he said.
The full schedule for the opening weekend of the 2017/2018 NPFL season is as follows:
Katsina United vs Kano Pillars
Abia Warriors vs MFM FC
Akwa United vs Rangers International
Heartland FC vs Sunshine Stars
FC IfeanyiUbah vs Yobe Stars
Kwara United vs Niger Tornadoes
Lobi Stars vs Enyimba
Nasarawa United vs Plateau United.
Rivers United vs El-Kanemi Warriors
Wikki Tourists vs Go Round FC