Log leaders Rivers United are back to having a 10-point advantage over their closest rivals Plateau United, and there are now have 15 more points to contest for. With two more wins out of five remaining matches, the Pride of Rivers will touch their hands of the Nigeria Professional Football League title for the first time.
On Matchday 33, Rivers United fought back from a first minute shock to beat safety-driven Abia Warriors 2-1 in Port Harcourt. Anthony Okemmiri did not allow the hosts to settle down before banging in the first goal of the match in the first minute. The result remained that way until the break despite Rivers’ intense pressure.
But Nelson Esor was fouled in the box and earned a penalty, which Chijioke Akuneto converted in the 69th minute to draw level. It was Akuneto’s 15th goal of the season. His 16th goal of the term was to follow eight minutes later, which ensured victory for the soon-to-be-champions. And it also established Akuneto as the top striker of the season so far.
While Rivers were in joyous mood in Port Harcourt, Plateau suffered another setback in the title race at Lekan Salami Stadium, Ibadan as Shooting Stars fought gamely to produce a much-needed victory. The Stars’s last home games had ended in draws – against Remo Stars and MFM – and their fans were already worried about a repeat occurrence when Samuel Mathias, in the 64th minute, cancelled Malomo Taofeeq’s eighth minute opener for the Oluyole Warriors. But Moses Omodumueke converted from the spot in the 89th minute to achieve maximum result, and dent Plateau’s resolve to close the gap on Rivers United.
Rangers, who were in Jos to go clear at No 3, were not so lucky. The Flying Antelopes held on until the 60th minute when Tockukwu Michael’s goal from the spot won the match for the home side Nasarawa United. Rangers however remained at that spot that will see them play in the continent next season.
In the early morning match, Enyimba thrashed Kwara United 3-0 in Aba to step up from sixth to fourth and draw level with Rangers on points. Striker Victor Mbaoma netted all the goals.
The game, earlier scheduled to take place on Saturday afternoon was moved by 16 hours at the behest of Kwara United, but it didn’t save them from facing the wrath of the People’s Elephant that have won all of their home games in the second stanza this season.
Enyimba went in front as early as the third minute when Mbaoma finished off a counterattack spearheaded by his attacking partner Christian Ekong. It was Ekong’s first start for the club and Mbaoma’s first appearance since returning from international duty with Nigeria’s Super Eagles.
Mbaoma got his second in the 15th minute through a brilliant finish to Farouk Mohammed’s pass before completing his hat-trick in the 54th minute after good work by winger Sadiq Abubakar. The third goal took Mbaoma’s tally for the season to 15 goals, one ahead of the duo of Ishaq Rafiu (Rivers United) and Yusuf Abdulazeez (Gombe United).
Enyimba are still without their head coach Finidi George who is in Morocco with Nigeria’s senior team, but his first assistant, Deniran Ortega, who took charge of Sunday’s game told www.npfl.ng, after the game that his team simply capitalised on their opponents’ weakness.
“We knew how the game would play. We were able to use their weakness because we know they’re stressed”, said Ortega.
“They came with a game plan to go back so we can play the game on a neutral ground so bringing them back on the way is a mental stress which we capitalised on.
“Our players followed the instructions from the coaches. We played against a good side nonetheless but we are able to capitalise on their mental stress”, added the former Warri Wolves coach.
Ortega also spoke on the immediate inclusion of hat-trick hero Mbaoma who missed their last three matches due to international engagement. “It was very easy to bring back Victor Mbaoma into the team because we were monitoring his performances there. He was playing with the big boys. Now he knows he needs to remain at the big boys level. I spoke to him, and he responded well”, said Ortega.
Kwara United chief coach Lukman Ijaiya attributed his team’s loss to the uncertainties that surrounded this fixture since Saturday.
“We passed through so much stress yesterday and we can see the match ended in the first half. The stres affected our players a lot so there’s nothing we can do about it”, the former Shooting Stars and Kwara United forward told reporters.
Ugochukwu Leonard shot Sunshine Stars ahead 11 minutes into their home match against Niger Tornadoes, but Jimmy Abdul cancelled the advantage just before the break – in the 44th minute. Ikenna Cooper ensured that the Akure Gunners triumphed in the 68th minute. Sunshine Stars however remained on the same spot – No 7 – on the same points with title holders Akwa United.
Despite winning in Uyo, Akwa United also stayed at the same eighth spot. Naibe Akpesiri’s 66th minute goal made the difference as Remo Stars lost not only three points but also suffered setback in the quest for continental club competition. The Sky Blue Stars dropped a step to now arrive at No 5, although the gap between them and third placed Rangers is only a point.
Gombe ended a four-goal thriller with Dakkada on even keel. But that 2-2 outcome was enough to see the away team pull a step up to No 18 and two points away from safety.
Abdulazeez Yusuf scored in the fifth minute for Gombe, while Rahman Olanrewaju’s own goal 10 minutes later got Dakkada relief. Emmanuel Ayaosi gave the fans at Pantami Stadium troubled when he banged in the visitors’ second goal in the 37th minute. Sani Suleiman however earned Gombe a point with his goal in the 56th minute.
Wikki Tourists denied Kano Pillars home victory when Shafiu Adamu struck in the 34th minute to cancel Fahad Usman’s advantage for Sai Masu Gida in the 14th minute.
MFM and Heartland appeared destined for the drop. Both sides were beaten 1-2 in their respective away fixture – MFM against Katsina United and Heartland versus Lobi Stars. Both teams occupy the last two spots on the table with Heartland and MFM respectively two and six points short of survival.
Katsina United’s Destiny Ashadi opening scoring in the sixth minute, while Micha Ojodomo brought relief for MFM in the 65th. Dauda Madaki however won the game for the home side with his strike in the 89th minute.
In Makurdi, Lobi’s Nanen Imenger’s penalty in the 55th minute and Ifeanyi Ogba’s goal in the 90th minute came in between that of Murphy Ndukwu (66th) for the Naze Millionaires.
All the results: Enyimba 3-0 Kwara United, Sunshine Stars 2-1 Niger Tornadoes, Katsina United 2-1 MFM, Lobi Stars 2-1 Heartland, Akwa United 1-0 Remo Stars, Gombe United 2-2 Dakkada, Shooting Stars 2-1 Plateau United, Kano Pillars 1-1 Wikki Tourists, Rivers United 2-1 Abia Warriors, Nasarawa United 1-0 Rangers
Additional report by LMC Media