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Plateau keep up challenge for NPFL title

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Rivers United are get closer to lifting this season’s Nigeria Professional Football League title. But Plateau United are just not letting go.

The Pride of Rivers held their own against Rangers in Awka City Stadium on Saturday to gain a point and go 11 points clear at the top. But if Plateau achieve result in Jos against Gombe United this Sunday, the Tin City team will have cut Rivers advantage to eight points with 12 more points to fight for.

In the first leg in Gombe, the home side forced Plateau to 1-1, coming from a goal down at the break in the Matchday 14 fixture. Sixteen home matches this term have ended in victory for Plateau, and this one is unlikely to be different.

Rivers United moved closer to winning the title, while Rangers lost ground in their quest to return to continental competitions after both teams played goalless on Saturday.

Before that game, the Flying Antelopes were in vantage position to finish in the third spot if they got a home win. But Rivers’ keeper Darlington Ovunda was in excellent form.

It was Rivers United that created the first real chance in the game when the frame of the post came to Rangers rescue after league leading scorer, Chijioke Akuneto’s header off Kazie Enyinnaya’s cross failed to beat the post.

Rangers responded with three chances of theirs to gain ascendancy before the break. Chidiebere Nwobodo forced a good save from Ovunda in the seventh minute before the same striker had his effort ricocheted off the cross bar 11 minutes later.

Rangers avalanche of misses continued in the 41st minute when Christian Nnaji missed a sitter after he was set up by Israel Abia while Ovunda, who was overwhelmingly picked as the Man-of-the-Match, made another excellent save off Eso Archibong’s close range effort in the 51st minute.

Rangers did have the ball at the back of the net in the 54th minute through Bala Akintunde’s effort but he was correctly adjudged to be in the offside position before he scored.

There was still another last minute opportunity for Rangers to seal the three points with three minutes to the full time when Ovunda parried to safety a goal-bound effort from Chidiebere Nwobodo to the surprise of the home fans who thought they had taken a late minute lead.

Rivers United Technical Manager, Stanley Eguma saluted Rangers for given his team a tough and very tactical game. He thumbed up his players for rising up to the occasion and cautioned them to continue their hunt for the league title even when it seems close to reality now.

“I want to salute the courage exhibited by Rangers. They put up a good fight and put us under intense pressure and we were forced to change our tactics,” Eguma told www.npfl.ng.

Fourth placed Enyimba are away to MFM and No 5 Remo Stars have a home fixture against Lobi Stars, and a win will see either of them ahead of Rangers in the race for the third spot, which guarantees international football next season.

Win or lose, MFM will remain rooted at the foot of the table. Their survival will be compounded if they lose.

MFM forced the People’s Elephant 1-1 in the first leg.

Lobi Stars are marginally up the relegation zone only on account of superior goal difference over Niger Tornadoes. They will be in a fighting mood in Ikenne-Remo where hosts Remo Stars will play in an empty stadium, observing sanctions.

Tornadoes are only two points above the relegation zone and will be mindful of the results of teams around them.

Another relegation troubled side Heartland improved their chances on Saturday as they defeated Katsina United by a lone goal.

But the Naze Millionaires’ problems off the pitch don’t seem to be abetting. After grinding out the win, Coach Erasmus Ọnụ alluded to the off pitch difficulties with a famous quote, “it is garbage in garbage out”.

While raising hopes that the team are capable of retaining their place in the top flight, said it is left for the club management to play its part.

“Yes it was actually difficult. If you look at this team it is one of the well-structured teams in the league. Akwa United and Rangers are some of the well-structured teams in the league and I have played against them. We were lucky to have taken our chance and won today”, he said.

Heartland problems began at the beginning of the season, largely on poor funding which on occasions forced the players to protest the backlog of unpaid entitlements.

In their game on Saturday, fixture, it was the home side that started on a brighter note, controlling and dictating the pace of the game. A 47th-minute penalty converted by Chukwude Nwaodu, after Ebejo Chukwueze was brought down inside the box, was the all-important strike as the Naze Millionaires finished the game on a high.

According to Onu their persistence paid off. “I told the boys to go back and continue to push and it paid off in the second half though it was a penalty but it was worth it”, Ọnụ told www.npfl.ng

Katsina United coach Usman Abdallah congratulated Heartland but questioned the penalty call, insisting it was a wrong decision from the centre referee.

“Heartland played well and it was a well-deserved victory which they needed but it was unfortunate that the penalty call was a wrong one because from where I was standing, I did not see what the offence”, complained Usman.

Like Heartland, Dakkada are also in danger, being second from the last spot. They are engaged in a local derby with outgoing champions Akwa United. Dakkada will also stay in the bottom four even if they triumph.

Sunday’s fixtures: Dakkada FC v Akwa United, Remo Stars v Lobi Stars, Kwara United v Sunshine Stars, Wikki Tourists v Shooting Stars, Plateau United v Gombe United, MFM v Enyimba (all 4 pm)

Saturday’s results: Abia Warriors 3-2 Kano Pillars, Heartland 1-0 Katsina United, Rangers 0-0 Rivers United, Niger Tornadoes 1-0 Nasarawa United

Additional reports by LMC

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