The battle for a national title and a 2022/2023 CAF Confederation Cup ticket heightens this weekend as competition in the 2022 Aiteo Federation Cup enters the round of 64.

The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the annual national football competition began on Tuesday with the preliminary round fixtures.

The qualifiers have now advanced to the round of 64 to face some of the seeded teams, which include several former national FA Cup and Federation Cup winners.

Those in this category include the likes of Enyimba International of Aba, Niger Tornadoes of Minna, Lobi Stars of Makurdi, Rangers International of Enugu and Heartland FC of Owerri.

Others are El-Kanemi Warriors of Maiduguri, Wikki Tourists of Bauchi, Bendel Insurance FC of Benin and Nasarawa United of Lafia.

They are also club sides whose campaign in the 2021/2022 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) failed to yield either the title or a ticket to play on the continent next season.

Now, they have to contend with the likes of Gombe United, Sunshine Stars of Akure, Katsina United, Akwa United of Uyo, Kwara United of Ilorin and Abia Warriors of Umuahia.

They will all jostle for the remaining continental club competition ticket, with the contest becoming stiffer with the surprise element brought into it by the so-called underdogs.

Just like last year when Nigeria National League (NNL) side Bayelsa United of Yenagoa won the competition, the lower league sides are like a red light to the top-flight sides.

This time around, 26 NNL sides, as well as 15 Nationwide League One (NLO) and 15 non-league clubs, began the contest with 17 NPFL sides.

Nine of them dropped out in the preliminary round, leaving behind 64 for the first round to be played on Saturday, Sunday and Monday across the country.

With the likes of NPFL champions Rivers United of Port Harcourt, Jos-based Plateau United and Ikenne-based Remo Stars, who already have continental competition tickets, still being involved, a hell-of-a-fight looms.

From the fixtures, the biggest of the battles should be in Owerri and Ikenne, going by the status of the teams involved.

However, with the surprise element usually associated with every Cup competition, anything can happen.

In the women’s competition, defending champions Bayelsa Queens of Yenagoa will still remain the favourites to claim the title going by their new status.

They won the 2021/2022 Nigeria Women Football League (NWFL) Premiership, and still look good enough to maintain their dominance.

But Rivers Angels of Port Harcourt will be looking to emulate their state-owned counterparts Rivers United who have now been reaping several benefits for winning a national title.

Nasarawa Amazons of Lafia, Delta Queens of Asaba and Edo Queens of Benin are also seeking national relevance and the Cup competition can offer them a route to that.

NAN reports that while the men’s competition will see qualifiers advancing to the Round of 32, the women’s competition offers passage into the Round of 16.

THE FIXTURES
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Round of 64 (Men) —– 

Bayelsa United vs Osevan FC   –  Aba  (Saturday – 4 p.m)

EFCC FC vs Green Beret FC   – Minna  (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Enyimba International vs Ijebu United    – Benin  (Saturday – 2 p.m)

Dreams FC vs Niger Tornadoes     – Enugu  (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Apex Crane FC vs Doma United    – Old Parade Ground, Abuja  (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

ABS FC vs Lobi Stars    – Kaduna   (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Nnewi United vs Akure City Academy    – Warri   (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Insurance Feeders vs Dannaz FC    – Ilorin   (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Rangers International vs ABJ FC    – FIFA Goal Project, Abuja (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

JM Liberty vs Heartland FC    – Calabar  (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

FRSC FC vs Adoration FC    – Ilorin (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Rivers United vs Dakkada FC     – Owerri   (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Sunshine Stars vs Osun United    – Ikenne (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Rovers FC vs Gombe United     – Makurdi (Saturday –  4 p.m)

Mailantarki FC vs Cynosure FC     – Makurdi (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Saki United vs Katsina United    – Minna (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Remo Stars vs ?????    – Asaba   (Saturday  –  4 p.m)

Essien Ayi FC vs Akwa United     – Aba (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Mighty Jets vs Kogi United     –  FIFA Goal Project, Abuja (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Kanta United vs Kebbi United     – Sokoto (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Plateau United vs DMD FC    – Gombe (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Housing Corporation vs Jigawa Golden Stars     – Minna (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Zamfara United vs Gamji Eaglets    – Jos (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Kano Pillars vs Junior Niger Tornadoes    –  Kaduna (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Fulfill FC vs Olukismet FC    — Makurdi (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

El-Kanemi Warriors vs Kun Khalifat    – Old Parade Ground, Abuja (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Yobe Desert Stars vs Kwara United     – Ranch Bees Stadium, Kaduna (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Wikki Tourists vs Junior Pillars    – Damaturu (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Bendel Insurance vs Junior Katsina United    – FIFA Goal Project, Abuja (Saturday  – 2 p.m)

Ottasolo FC vs Abia Warriors     – Warri (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Ekiti United vs Sokoto United     – Minna (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Eaglets FC vs Nasarawa United     – ABS, Kaduna  (Saturday  – 4 p.m)

Round of 32 (Women)   —– 

Bayelsa Queens vs ????    –    ???  (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Brave Heart Ladies vs Niger Amazons    – Lokoja (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Abruka Queens vs Paragon Soccer Academy    – Benin City (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Abia Angels vs Ekiti Queens    –  Asaba (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Naija Ratels vs Rivers Angels    –  Enugu (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Imo Angels vs Nasarawa Amazons   – Ilorin (Sunday   – 2 p.m)

Immaculate Queens vs Maureen Madu FC    – Benin City (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Salem City FC vs Confluence Queens    – Ilorin (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Gallant Queens vs Honey Badgers FC    – Area 3, Abuja (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Castmog FC vs Delta Queens     – Ilorin (Saturday – 4 p.m)

Sunshine Queens vs Heartland Queens     – Warri (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Crystal Stars vs Dannaz Ladies   – Enugu (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Moje Queens vs Osun Babes     – Ekiti (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Joy FC vs Royal Queens FC    – Owerri (Sunday  – 2 p.m)

Ibom Angels vs Edo Queens     – Owerri (Sunday  – 4 p.m)

Awka Angels vs FC Robo Queens     – Warri (Monday  – 4 p.m)

(NAN)