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2018 Bet9ja SociaLiga preview: Mainland Conference

Historically, the Mainland Conference has always been the more competitive of the two SociaLiga conferences and things are expected to stay that way this season. The reshuffle of conferences saw Bravos Knights FC & All Black FC retain their places in the Mainland Conference while Guns FC & Knights FC joined in from the Island. We take a look at the competing teams starting with Bravos Knights.

Bravos Knights FC

Fate. It could be cruel sometimes. Remember Czech Republic back in the 2004 Euros? Well, they went into the tournament as dark horses but gradually became one of the favorites as the tournament went on with some of the best team displays in the tournament. After an amazing run, a cruel injury to skipper, Pavel Nedved in the semi-final saw a slightly unfancied Greece side take advantage in the drop in morale in the Czech camp to reach the finals which they eventually won. 14 years later and the Czech fans still dream of what could have been.

Last season, Bravos Knights weren’t any different. They showed a lot of promise early on in the season with 2 wins and a loss in their first 3 games which included a victory over then reigning Mainland Conference champions, Royals. Their 8-game unbeaten run to reach the Conference finals is the longest a SociaLiga male team had gone in its debut season and they finished the Regular Season in 1st place with a Mainland Conference record of 21 pts. Heading into the playoffs, they were the favorites to come out of the Mainland but Raineri Ghosts had other ideas. Absence to a couple of key players in the Bravos team resulted in a drop in morale which handed over the advantage to Raineri before the game had even started. They would eventually lose on penalties which saw them miss out of the finals; a bitter end to what had been a sweet season.

Bravos Knights’ success in the Regular Season was largely down to a dominant midfield which didn’t hold possession for the fun of it but, amongst other things, created the most clear-cut chances in the league. In front of goal, they barely had problems. Their 14 goals scored was second only to Saints while their 9 different goal-scorers for the season remains a league record. That unpredictability in attack was, perhaps, their most trusted weapon. They caused damage in the middle through skip, Kellor-Smith and on the wings through John Ndanusa. Up top, Alaba Otukoya proved to be reliable as the main striker and finished off chances with relative ease.

Bravos Knights is arguably the most balanced team there is coming into the league but if last year had any lessons for them, it is the importance of finishing strongly.

Key Player: John Ndanusa & Francis Kellor-Smith

 

Guns FC

We’ve had 5 finals in The SociaLiga, 5 exciting finals, we must add. Yet, it says a lot that Guns’ historic feat on the final day of last year’s Regular Season had more drama than all 5 finals rolled up in one. It was a comeback for the ages that showed Guns’ often dormant quality on the pitch which raises the question: Why can’t they play like that in every match?

Guns have been lucky enough to have turned two seemingly mediocre seasons around over the last two years. It’s a habit they should be looking to drop heading into Saturday and they may have just done that. Last season, despite Olawoyin Ebenezer & Gilbert Ekugbe’s best efforts, Guns found it extremely difficult to get goals scoring just 10 goals in 13 games. They were the only team to make the play-offs with a negative goal-difference (-3) which isn’t exactly a dependable plan. In the off-season, Guns addressed that with the perfect signing.; the addition of Sylvester Ighedosa which makes a whole lot of sense.

For the most part, Guns don’t play the sexiest football you’ll have the chance to watch. They create good chances alright but they’re a side that has come to rely on its physicality rather than its technicality which, to be fair, has worked for them. In Sylvester Ighedosa, they’ve signed a striker who’s got the ability to be a threat in the air, with the ball at his feet, in a rugged team & in a champagne football playing team. Whatever the style of play Guns plan to use this season, Sly would have no problem fitting right in. In the 2016 season, he was deployed as a midfielder by the Royals and his excellent string of displays earned him a spot in the team of the season. Last season, with the departure of Emmanuel Eze to Bravos Knights, Sylvester Ighedosa was moved to the striking position and given an even bigger leadership role in the team. He embraced these by scoring 5 goals and leading the team into the playoffs after a very poor start to the season that saw them bottom of the table midway through the season. Besides the huge improvement in his play, Sly’s performances last season showed just how tough he was mentally which is just what Guns need right now.

Key Players: Sylvester Ighedosa & Gilbert Ekugbe

Knights FC

Tough Love; An expression used when someone treats another person harshly and sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. Right now, Knights FC needs some tough love from us, from themselves, from everyone.

In December 2015, SociaLiga hosted its maiden tournament; a one-day Christmas themed event you could consider a minor competition and Knights picked it up. 5 months later, The SociaLiga hosted the Foundation Cup and the organization’s first major trophy was up for grabs. Knights picked that up as well. They would eventually finish 5 pts behind Saints in the Island Conference to miss out on a chance to complete a treble. Impressive for a season’s work. To many, that is their memory of Knights; the team that dazzled their way to 2 Cups. Sadly, it’s been almost 2 years since they achieved this and perhaps it’s time they snap out of it and get back to the drawing board. While Knights’ achievement 2 seasons ago was enough to earn 3 of their plyers spots in the Team of the Season in 2016 as well as earn their manager the Manager of the Season award in that same year, the reality is Knights have won just 5 of their 18 games in the SociaLiga since they lifted the Foundation Cup. 5. In 18. 5! Last season, they scored just 6 goals all season. 6! You could argue that they’ve been bad longer than they’ve been good and, looking back, the Foundation Cup feels like a Gift as well as a Curse because they really did relax after they won it.

Last season’s collapse on the final day of the Regular Season echoed the team’s lack of professionalism and still is a shock to many. With 3 games till the end of the season, they held a 4 pt lead over Guns FC and were in firm control of the 3rd playoff spot. They picked up just 1 pt over their next 3 games to relinquish the 3rd playoff spot to Guns in what is still the biggest collapse in SociaLiga’s 3-year history. Perhaps Seyi Fowode’s departure from the managerial position was a bad decision the team is yet to recover from. Whatever it is, you can’t deny the enormous talent in this Knights side and really, that is what is the most worrisome about their shocking decline. On his day, Samson Chukwu is the league’s best center-back, Derin is one of the league’s best right-back but most importantly one of the league’s best leaders, Momoh is a star in the midfield while Jabaar Aminu could walk into any team and have a starting position offered to him in a heart-beat. Yet, it is a surprise that all these pieces put together are more likely to leave their fans with broken hearts rather than full ones.

With the new year comes new opportunities, new chances to get things right. There’ll be nothing sweeter from a neutral point of view to see one of the most talented and respected sides in the league live up to its reputation. At the peak of their powers in 2016, a seemingly unstoppable Royals side were absolutely out-played by a tactically brilliant & disciplined Knights side. Knights grabbed all 3 points on that day in a game you could argue was their performance in the league. That’s the Knights people love. That’s the champagne football that was promised. That’s the Knights we hope to see and for their sake and the sake of their fans, they better bring it.

Key Players: Jabaar Aminu & Samson Chukwu

All Black FC

All Black had a difficult first season which saw them (unluckily?) run in to teams in their best forms. They met Bravos at the start of the season when Bravos was at their best. They ran into Raineri on the very day the rain came & they met Royals at the end of the season when Royals could smell the last playoff spot in the Mainland Conference and couldn’t be stopped. It’s a tough league to play in and they learned the hard way. The most concerning part for All Black, however, was that they didn’t exactly show enough promise in their performances to build on for their sophomore year.

Their problems on the pitch were glaring from the very first day, from Mayowa in goal to a defense only suited to deal with aerial balls to a midfield too ‘stiff’ to run around right down to an attack that produced just 6 goals in 10 games.

While the management structure over at All Black remains excellent, there is an enormous task of translating all that into victories on the pitch. The transfer window presented an opportunity to right their wrongs and so far, they haven’t exactly done that. A gloomy season looms over them except they get it right over the next couple of days.

Key Player: Uba Azinge

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