Akwa United will face a serious challenge in their determination to hold on to the leadership of the Nigeria Professional Football League Group B table when they host Kano Pillars on Sunday at the Nest of Champions Stadium, Uyo in one of the matchday15 fixtures.
In the reverse fixture between these two sides at the Sani Abacha Stadium, Kano earlier in the season, it ended 1-1 apiece and it evoked the memory of last season when Sai Masu Gida suffered a home defeat to the Promise Keepers in Kano.
However, in the build-up to Sunday's encounter, nothing has indicated that Ibrahim Musa’s men are ready to settle for the second-best in Uyo in the return leg.
Rafael Everton's team started the season poorly and were even in the relegation zone at the end of the opening four matches of the season but they have had such a monstrous wanton leap thereafter and have only been beaten once in their last 10 matches in the league to remain in the command of Group B of the top-flight with only eight fixtures to the end of the regular season.
They have built up a reputation for themselves that has made it difficult for their opponents to aspire for even a point in Uyo and it will be a herculean task for Sai Masu Gida to halt that trend this weekend.
Akwa United completed a double over Kano Pillars last season with the return in Uyo ending in a 3-0 drubbing but the stage is different this term and the odds almost even with only two points separating the league leaders from the fourth-placed team.
The result of this game will play a key role in the determination of the three teams that will make it to the playoff spots with other serious contenders: El Kanemi Warriors and FC IfeanyiUbah also involved in home games against Plateau United and Go Round respectively on Sunday in Maiduguri and Nnewi in that order.
Kano Pillars could see themselves slip out of the top three by as many of five points at the end of the weekend games if they are unable to secure at least a draw in Uyo. It will be a tough call for Sai Masu Gida but having won the league title before on four different occasions they are aware that any further error in the remaining games of the season could see their dream of making it a fifth crown evaporate even before the start of the season-ending playoffs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sai Masu Gida will still rely on the experience of Victor Dennis, Chris Madaki, Emmanuel Anyanwu, Nzube Anaezemba and three strike partners of Gambo Mohammed, Rabiu Ali and Nyima Nwagua to oppress the Promise Keepers and the fact that they embarked on the most part of the trip to Uyo by flight will make the team better refreshed and ready to roll by the time game starts. They, however, have a stumbling block in their influential defender Sunday Chinedu who did not make the cut to the tie in Uyo for personal reasons.
The Promise Keepers are not shorn of players also with Jean Efala expected to start in goal ahead of out-of-favour Ojo Olorunlekewhile Etiboy Akpan, Cyril Olisema, Wisdom Fernando, Christopher Lolo, Aniefiok Godspower (who was a former player of Kano Pillars before his sojourn abroad) and the quintessential strikers: Ndifreke Effiong and Alberico Da Silva all playing important roles in ensuring that Sai Masu Gida do not have a sniff at any of the points on Sunday. Mfon Udoh remains a major doubt due to injury and his absence will be seriously be felt having scored eight goals for the 2015 and 2017 Federation Cup champions.
The battle is expected to be fierce but the lukewarm performance of Kano Pillars in their away fixtures this season has given the three points to Akwa United even before the start of the game. While the Promise Keepers have amassed nine points from their away games this season including two away wins, Sai Masu Gida have only struggled for four points from their trips outside Kano. Pillars have been beaten twice in their last five matches and have only seven points under the same period as against 10 accumulated by the league leaders from the same number of games.
The final result may not end in another whitewash for Kano Pillars like it was last season when they were pummeled 3-0 in Uyo but it will be difficult for them to escape the Nest of Champions without a slim defeat.