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Insurance: Can They Become Nigeria’s ‘Invincibles’?

“It’s a good one, having to play with the big legs again and coming third for us is a work in progress. It’s not easy coming from the NNL. We have taken a lot of lessons from the tournament. We have seen where our lapses are and where we need to fortify and we are coming back to the NPFL and we hope to stay this time around.”

When the Senior Special Assistant to the Edo State Governor on Sports, Sixtus Omokhagbon, made the above statement in an interview with PUNCH Sports Extra during the NPFL pre-season tournament in December 2022, his body language was as modest as his words. As at then, nobody had the idea of which group the team would belong to ahead of the much-debated abridged season.

Having found themselves in a tough Group A that had perennial champions Enyimba and other teams like Akwa United, pre-season winners 3SC, Remo Stars and even Plateau United, it was hard to imagine Bendel Insurance would be able to pull any strings, either to stay alive or challenge for a play-off position.

However, four months after, the Benin Arsenal have proved doubters wrong by remaining unbeaten so far this season, standing tall at the summit of the table with 26 points from 12 matches. As a matter of fact, they haven’t relinquished the top spot in the group since stunning Akwa United 2-0 in Uyo in the season opener.

With six more matches to go in the regular season, they might be on course to match the NPFL record for the longest unbeaten run in the league, which was set by Akwa United in 2021 in 15 matches.

That said, how they have become a surprise package of the season is boxed in their statistics.

The Benin Arsenal have conceded the least number of goals this season — six — and have also kept the highest number of clean sheets — seven. This speaks volume about their decency at the back and the effort of their goalkeeper, Amas Obasogie.

Aside from that, striker, Osarenkhoe Imade, is joint-second on the scorers’ chart with eight goals, just a goal behind Enyimba’s Emeka Obioma. His striking partner, Ismael Sarkin, also has four goals. In cases that both players have failed to deliver, which is rare, the likes of Deputy Echeta with two goals and defender Ebuka Akobundu (one goal), have come through with important goals which have secured points for the Benin Arsenal this season. Astin Ogunye completes the number of goal scorers for the club thus far.

“The management most definitely is the foundation on which the players are building on. The structure they put in place, the motivation for the team and their timely intervention to every need must be commended,” defender Benjamin Tanimu told PUNCH Sports Extra.

“Also, the coaching crew has been awesome, they give the right tactical formation, they imbibe discipline in the team and make it like a family for everyone to feel at home. These are what we the players are riding on to this stage,” he added.

Another reason that is not in the numbers is how well the club have managed long trips this season. In six away matches so far, the only times they travelled by road was against Kwara United and 3SC in Ibadan, as well as against Enyimba in Aba. Every other trip has been by air and it is not surprising to see how refreshing that can be for the players.

“When we started the season, the Edo Deputy Governor gave us a charge of getting a continental ticket. He didn’t only task the team, but also ensured that every necessary motivation, including salaries, bonuses and even kits were in place. Any away match that is over five hours, we travel by air and that helps to preserve the players,” Omokhagbon told our correspondent.

So, from chasing continental ticket, we are even trying to get more and hopefully we will create a landmark record soon,” he added.

Insurance fan, David Alabi, who didn’t expect much before the start of the season, is now looking forward to more from the Benin Arsenal.

“Some of us have been following the team for a long time and we have seen the right support coming from the government and private investors. And I think they did the right recruitment as well. Honestly, I didn’t expect this much, but it’s not a surprise because of the efforts. Twelve over 12 already and I presume the remainder of the season will be tough. But it’s good to see our team becoming the standard this season,” Alabi told PUNCH Sports Extra.

Head coach Monday Odigie has won two Coach of The Month awards for January and February for how he has steered the newcomers from obscurity to title chasers. The gaffer has been able to instil the right level of confidence in players hitherto unknown, who in turn has taken the domestic scene by storm.

Having blazed the trail with 12 matches in an abridged season, if they leap into the next four matches ahead of them, the Benin Arsenal can as well fancy their chances of setting a new record for the longest unbeaten run in the league. That means they must avoid defeat against Kwara United at home on Sunday, Remo Stars in Ikenne on match-day 14, El-Kanemi at home on match-day 15 and Gombe United at the Pantami Stadium. The match-day 16 tie in Gombe might just be a perfect match for what they would achieve.

Without being carried away by what is ahead, Insurance might have done enough already to stay alive in the league, what remains to be seen is how well they will finish the regular season and if they might be able to replicate the same tenacity in the Super Six, which will determine Nigeria’s representatives on the continent and the ultimate winners of the 2023 NPFL.

English giants Arsenal, who are leading the title race in the Premier League, hold the record for the only side to have won the domestic league unbeaten throughout the season in 2005, with Nigerian forward Nwankwo Kanu among the ‘Invincibles.’

Can Insurance, who are nicknamed Benin Arsenal, emulate their London counterparts and become the Nigerian ‘Invincibles’?

The ball is in their court.

Source : Punch