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2018 Bet9ja SociaLiga preview: Island Conference

Twenty-nine years ago, The Nature Boy, Ric Flair uttered one of the most profound statements by a competitor; to be THE man, you gotta beat THE man. It appeared simplistic on the surface but with three decades gone by, those nine words still sink deep into the heart(s) of anyone looking to uncrown the king. With this in mind, the question on everyone’s lips right now is “who will beat The Saints? Who will be THE man?”

The SociaLiga conferences have been reshuffled and each conference now has a new look. The Island Conference retained it’s 2-time title holder, Saints FC and Alphas FC while welcoming Mainland Conference’s Citizens FC & debutant’s Dannaz FC. We start off by taking a look at the reigning League Champions, Saints FC.

Saints FC

So, here’s the thing about Saints FC, they’re extremely good at what they do. And, no, I’m not only talking about what they do on the pitch, that bit is obvious. They’re extremely good at what they do off the pitch.

Saints FC have mastered the art of building a team and it’s no wonder they’ve enjoyed consistent success over the years despite huge changes at various points. To The Saints, if winning off the pitch can be guaranteed, they can pretty much translate that into winning on the pitch. Two years ago, they won back-to-back editions of The TPL before leaving to join The SociaLiga. They had the best squad then but further improved it by adding talents to The Army, most notably Emeka Ikondu who would go on to put on a Man of the Match display in their finals against Royals FC. Heading into last season, they shopped where no one was interested in shopping. Reds FC had finished bottom of the Mainland Conference in Season 1 gaining just 5 pts from 9 games and their players weren’t on the top of many teams’ wish lists; they were on Saints’, though. Saints FC signed trio Musa Abdulrazaq, Wale Olorunnimbe and Tolu Benson from Reds FC right before the start of the 2017 season and all three proved to be great additions with Musa & Tolu (who finished as the joint top-scorer) scoring in the finals as they retained their title. In similar fashion in this off season, they’ve shopped in two teams who had disappointing campaigns last year. Center-back, Dipo Rufai from Knights FC and midfielder, Moshood Sulayman from Citizens joined to bolster their squad as they prepare for a 3-Peat. If history is anything to go by, these two will have great bearings on their season.

Saints’ approach to games, as explained in details here, isn’t expected to change this season. The 3-headed monster in their attack with Robert Odu, Tolu Benson and last season’s finals MVP, Nurudeen Olusesi destroyed every defense they came across with Cubs FC (on Matchday 6) and Raineri Ghost (in the finals) most notably feeling their wrath in full. Musa Abdulrazaq & Emeka Ikondu are still expected to have big impacts from deep in their halves while veteran midfielder, Kunle Ibaru will still have limited playing time.

One often overlooked quality by the Saints is their continuous ability to fill the leadership gaps left by key figures leaving the club. They’ve created a system of promoting from within which has ensured the boat remaining stable and not rocked during periods of transition. When Opeyemi Tokoya left the club in 2016, he left with 3 league titles to his name. To fill his vacant position, Abdulhakeem Osumah – the team’s leading scorer – was promoted from player to manager while Tolu Benson was signed to replace him in attack. Abdulhakeem Osumah got off to an even better start than his predecessor, claiming 10 pts from his first 4 games before he unexpectedly had to retire mid-season. Current manager, Bishi Abdulwaheed was up next. He retired from his playing position at center-back and eventually led the team to its 2nd SociaLiga league title and 5th in their history. With another key figure in the team rumored to be leaving the team in a couple of days, this quality will be called upon again.

Key Players: Robert Odu, Tolu Benson & Nurudeen Olusesi

Citizens FC

Coming into their sophomore season in The SociaLiga, Citizens had a decent foundation to build on. In their debut season in 2016, they had reached the finals of the Foundation Cup, star player Somide Tobiloba Martin was voted Midfielder of the season & he also made the Team of the Season. Despite finishing 8pts behind Royals in the league, Citizens had showed enough promise going into 2017. What followed, however, was a regression only rivaled by LeBron James’ hairline.

Citizens finished with 5 pts from 10 games and just 1 win and 3 goals scored all season long. They finished bottom of the Mainland Conference in the Regular Season, 16 pts behind Bravos Knights and became every stat-padder’s favorite opponent. Somide Tobiloba Martin who had scored 4 goals from midfield in the previous season failed to register a single goal or an assist and their comical defending reached new heights. This off-season, however, they got somethings right – on paper, at least – and for the first time since 2016, they look like doing serious damage.

With last season’s Mainland Conference Champions, Raineri Ghost sitting out the season, Citizens FC snatched two players from their camp; Shahin “Benzema” Alawam (joint top-scorer for the season) and Victor Eneji, arguably the league’s best midfielder. Despite being courted by Saints FC earlier in January, Citizens were able to beat the odds by luring them to their camp (and The 12th Player strongly feels there was a bit of dark magic involved in this process though, we have no proof to support our admittedly outrageous claim). These two signings could and should change their fortunes heading into the season.

Over the last two seasons, Citizens’ highest goal-scorers have been midfielders with none of their strikers scoring more than twice in a season. Benzema’s addition addresses this need that has lingered for way too long. Benzema’s presence in the team also means the team is back to being a threat from set-pieces. He’s very good from penalties and has a 100% penalty conversion rate in the SociaLiga. Victor Eneji, as well, addresses a need for midfield dominance & creativity, a need that has become even more urgent with Somide Tobiloba Martin likely to sit out the first half of the season due to an injury. Victor Eneji, who won the Raineri Ghost Fans’ Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year & Midfielder of the Year award (boy, is he good!) comes into the team with a huge reputation and an equally huge load to carry. Former captain, Doyin Ajibike now retired from his playing role, has replaced Jide Adebayo as manager. He’s experimented with 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formations and the partnering of Yusuf Mohammed, Oge Anizor (another new signing from Alphas) & Victor Eneji in midfield looks like one of the top combinations in the League heading into the season which says a lot about the growth in the Citizens squad over the last 3 months.

While the squad is in the strongest state it’s been in & while Citizens have done some excellent business in the transfer market, there are still some concerns about the defense that has shipped 32 goals in 20 games over the last 2 seasons. A slight worry for new manager, Doyin heading into the season and an area for opponents to exploit.

Key Players: Shahin Alawam & Victor Eneji

Alphas FC

Just like Citizens FC did last season, Alphas FC finished bottom of their conference and just like Citizens, they scored 3 goals all year. Their poor results, though, could be attributed to sheer bad luck (although, you could argue that a season worth of poor results can’t be excused with the two words “bad luck”). In last year’s season opener against Cubs FC, they dominated all game and looked likely to nick a winner but Cubs FC’s goalie, Adebayo “Barthez” Adeola stunned the crowd with his absolute peach of a free-kick to hand them a loss on their SociaLiga debut. Since then, Alphas never really recovered and their woes in front of goal in that game were on full display game after game. They put up brave fights against Saints FC in both encounters in games that were arguably the toughest Saints played all season long. They lost both games to Saints, though they left with morale victories for their efforts but remember what Shawn Carter famously said about “morale victories”? Yes, that.

The wave of management restructuring that has swept the SociaLiga over the last year also hit Alphas. There’s been a little change in the running of affairs behind the scenes which has been transferred to the players who, in turn, are itching to wipe the shame off their faces for last season’s performances.

While they’ve got some undeniable talent, most notably Olaniyi David in midfield, their lack of goals up top might again be their undoing this campaign. Their loss of midfielder, Oge Anizor to Citizens FC remains a surprise to everyone watching from outside both camps and is something they ‘might’ live to regret.

Key Player: Olaniyi David

Dannaz FC

There’s very little known about Dannaz FC. Saturday will be the club’s first competitive game and they get to play against Alphas. What we do know, however is a couple of their players who were out on loan last season in the SociaLiga. Joshua Obaniki, Abiola Adebayo and Israel Nelson Princewill all played for Raineri Ghost in 2017 where they helped the team win the Mainland Conference title. Israel Nelson Princewill was the out-standing player amongst the three. His performances between the sticks helped Raineri Ghost keep a joint-record 6 clean-sheets for the season, a SociaLiga record of 5 consecutive wins and earned himself the Golden Glove award which he shared with Saints’ Adewale Opeyemi.

Dannaz FC’s management have been working tirelessly off the field ahead of the season and if their effort is anything to go by, we should be in for a decent debut campaign from them. Bravos Knights came into the 2017 season with nothing but a strong bond & an element of surprise and took the league by storm. Dannaz will be hoping they emulate that.

Key Player: Israel Nelson Princewill

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