The Aiteo Cup enters the Round of 16 this week, with group-stage matches set to commence from Monday as the nation’s top sides compete for a Caf Confederation Cup ticket.
In this feature, KweséESPN profiles the key contenders for the title.
Akwa United are gunning to retain the title for the first time in the club’s history.
The two-time champions (2015 and 2017) have started this year’s competition like a house on fire, netting 12 goals in two matches in one-sided victories against Hope of Glory and Aklosendi.
Credit must go to the coaching crew, led by head coach Abdul Maikaba, for keeping the team in top shape despite their inactivity for over 10 weeks owing to problems that overshadowed the administration of football in Nigeria.
The Promise Keepers play an eye-catching brand of football, and also possess some of the best players in the country.
An inability to qualify for the group stage of the CAF Confederation Cup on two previous occasions will surely motivate them to bag another shot at continental competition.
Enyimba: The People’s Elephant perhaps carry the greatest threat of the title contenders in the 2018 Aiteo Cup, due to a combination of experience, an array of quality players and their involvement in the knockout stage of the CAF Confederation Cup, which has seen their players have the upper hand in terms of match fitness.
The four-time champions (2005, 2009, 2013 and 2014) have quietly but effectively seen off challenges from Wasiu Alabelewe and Dynamite FC without grabbing the headlines, scoring five goals and, more impressively, keeping a clean sheet.
It will be intriguing to see how Enyimba manage their Round of 16 games, which begin shortly after Sunday’s CAF CC quarter-final second leg against Rayon Sports of Rwanda.
Regardless of the tight schedule, we can expect experienced players such as Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Ikechukwu Ibenegbu, who have seen their game time reduced in recent months, shoulder the responsibility of navigating the group stage.
Kano Pillars are pushing for a first Nigeria Cup title, with their best performance to date a runners-up finish in 1991.
Sai Masu Gida haven’t played on the continent since 2015, a rather shocking fact considering the professional manner in which the club is run and the availability of top stars.
The present crop of players would feel hard done by the premature conclusion of the league, where they were title contenders, and could view the Aiteo Cup as a grand opportunity to win their first trophy in four years.
Dependent on the goals of Junior Lokosa, complemented with the creativity, and leadership of Rabiu Ali in midfield, Pillars can realistically dream of continental competition.
Plateau United are one of the top favourites for the Aiteo Cup, a competition they will be looking to win only for a second time after earning top honours in 1999.
The Jos-based team will have their work cut out, as they need to progress from a group which comprises Enyimba, J.Atete and Katsina United in the Round of 16.
Despite losing key players such as Raphael Ayagwa and Okiemute Odah to clubs overseas in the transfer window, the Tin City Boys are spoilt for choices in their quest to return to continental competition.
Rivers United have also been drawn in the Group of Death along with Pillars, and while the Pride of Rivers’ pedigree isn’t much to write home about, they could be dark horses in the title race.
They can bank on the managerial experience of serial winner Stanley Eguma, while in-form Bernard Ovoke could be the man to fire them into the continental places.