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NPFL: Akwa United’s Rough Rise and Everton’s Debacle

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Prior to the commencement of the 2018/2019 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) season, one team on the mouth of football followers across the nation was Akwa United. 

While many may have thought the departure of Abdu Maikaba would cause a shake in the team, many others also fancied the team’s chances of going all the way with their additions and replacement.

This article looks at where it may have gone wrong for the two-time Aiteo Cup Champions.

At the end of last season, Akwa finished 2nd place, a position many argued would have improved had the season finished with 38 games. Nevertheless, that would be their highest finish in the league since its establishment in 1996.

RISE TO PROMINENCE

Akwa United had always been sort of pretenders in the NPFL. Each season, they found themselves battling to survive relegation.  They were just a number in the league and never fiercely competing among the top teams.  Back then, Akwa only resolved to win their home matches at the Uyo Township stadium with little to offer on the road.

Their status got uplifted when they won their first silverware, the Federations Cup now known as Aiteo Cup in 2016 under Coach Zachary Baraje. That same season, they escaped relegation on the final day of the season. The gaffer responsible for this feat, Baraje was sacked despite qualifying them for continental competition and a foreigner was appointed.

A household name already in the league, Belgian born Maurice Koeman was handed the responsibility of making sure the Promise Keepers maintain their place among the elites. The team was boosted with a good playing surface as they started playing at the Nest of champions.

Despite much hype, Maurice Koeman didn’t deliver as Akwa was ousted from the CAF Confederations Cup in the first round. They beat club Makonda in Congo but returned home to infamously lose via a penalty shootout.

Koeman was sacked after reportedly falling out with the club’s management and Abdu Maikaba was appointed.

The Tactician had just led Wikki Tourists to a third-place league finish but departed to Uyo with his assistant Aliyu Zubairu to embrace a new challenge at Uyo.

The Promise Keepers enjoyed good success while the Physics teacher was at the helm though the wards were unable to win their first six matches. Despite a difficult beginning under Maikaba, Akwa finished 4th place, 2 points behind 3rd placed Enyimba.

He also gave Akwa their 2nd silverware as they won the maiden edition of the Aiteo Cup (formerly known as the Federation cup) despite many of the first team players participating in the national team, thereby qualifying them for the 2018 CAF Confederations Cup.

The next season was an upgrade of the previous season. 

United took part in the CAF Confederations Cup and made it to the third round during which they were eliminated by Al-Itihad of Libya who had superior away goals after an agregate 3-3 score.

Maikaba was en route to winning the league but it ended prematurely with the Promise Keepers finishing 2nd behind table-toppers Lobi Stars. That would see the end of Maikaba’s romance with the Uyo side as he left at the end of the season. 

NEW COACH, NEW TACTICS

The departure of Maikaba meant Akwa United had to find a new coach. Players also departed at the end of last season and the club chairman, Eld. Paul Bassey was quick to replace them with new names.

Brazilian Coach Rafael Everton secured the Job, flying in from Sao Paulo to take charge and immediately resume coaching duties. He came with fellow countrymen, Assistant Coach Israel Jose Lira and midfielder Alberico da Silva, who was with him at FC Ifeanyi Ubah.</>

Everton had previously coached two Nigerian clubs. His first stint was at FC Ifeanyi Ubah were he won the Federations Cup, after beating Nasarawa United on penalties following a scoreless full-time. 

His league finish didn’t impress the oil magnate resulting in his relegation down the pecking order to handle the academy team, a job he rejected and as a result, flew back to his country.

The young Brazilian tactician, however, returned to Nigeria a year later  to take charge of another eastern side Abia warriors. In a mixed fortune season,  he could only lead Abia warriors to a 16th position in the league before he was dismissed for failing to report to duty in good time, despite the team swimming in relegation waters. 

Having arrived in Uyo, Everton’s was clearly tasked to take the club back to the continent and also consolidate on last season’s 2nd place finish. The club unveiled 12 new signings including big names, foreigners and players who had won the league before. Anyone would think that with this type of arsenal, Everton’s side would easily stroll past teams in the abridged league. 

But so far, it hasn’t been all rosy for the Brazilian and his wards. They opened their season with a loss to El-Kanemi Warriors at home, no thanks to goalkeeper Ojo Olorunleke who made a rather infamous mistake in the last minute. 

Their next game was at Kano. 

Against Pillars, Everton played a 3-6-1 formation, different from the 4-4-2 played on matchday one, and this paid dividend as they left Kano with a point.  This showed a glimmer of hope for the Uyo fans as they welcomed Plateau United on matchday 4.

Again in a 3-6-1 formation, Akwa struggled and almost won but for the second home match in a row, they conceded in the dying minutes of the encounter to share  spoils with former coach Abdu Maikaba’s new side. 

The Uyo fans were already calling for the Brazilian’s sack after that Plateau draw and their call grew louder as the team lost 2-0 away to Nasarawa United on Monday, with Ojo Olorunleke back in goal.

This loss means Akwa are deeply rooted at the end of the table with 2 pts from 4 games, 9 points below table toppers FC Ifeanyi Ubah.</>

WHAT NEXT FOR AKWA

Akwa return home to face GoRound FC  on Sunday, February 3rd 2019 and Rafael Everton is under pressure to turn the club’s season around. There is speculation that the big names in the team are not so happy with the new tactics which is mainly tiki-taka.

While many think the Brazilian is rather too inexperienced to coach an experienced Akwa side, one must also put into consideration, the fact that he is not too fluent in English, thereby leading to some form of communication gap between him and his lads.

Everton’s Assistant and match reader, Israel Jose Lira also has language shortfall as it’s only the other Assistants Abdullahi Umar and Daniel Japheth that can communicate well with the players. 

One can also guess that the Brazilian is yet to find the right men to execute his desired tactics, formation and gameplay.  In a league where a team can only play maximum of 22 games, the promise keepers have already dropped 10 points in as many as 4 matches prompting relegation fears in Uyo. 

The writer of this article believes the coach deserves patience and not backlash at this stage. He should make sure his players believe him and are happy to play for him. He will equally need to pick a more cohesive XI while making witty substitutions when the occasion demands. 

Akwa may not make it to the playoffs, but it’s rather too early to fear that the two-time Aiteo Cup champions will go down to the NNL.

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