By Fisayo Dairo and LMC reporters
Seven more matches to wrap up the 2021/22 Nigeria Professional Football League season, and Rivers United are closer to breaking the jinx of claiming Nigeria’s topflight league title. By winning the clash of the top two this evening in Port Harcourt, the Pride of Rivers have gone 10 points clear of Plateau United, who have been on their heels for weeks.
If this gap is sustained by the end of Matchday 35, Rivers United would have won the title with three matches to spare.
After winning away to Dakkada last match day, Rivers knew a win over Plateau on Matchday 31 would take them within touching distance of the title.
They were made to work so hard for their points though, and they got it in the end courtesy of two non-conventional goals by Chijioke Akuneto, who joins absent teammate Ishaq Rafiu at the top of the scorers chat.
Akuneto gave Rivers United the lead in the 34th minute when he converted from the penalty spot after he was fouled inside the box. He doubled the lead eight minutes to the regulation time after a goal mouth scramble.
Rivers’ head coach Stanley Eguma acknowledged that his team are almost there.
“We’re almost there but it’s not yet over. We still need to work hard”, Eguma told www.npfl.ng.
“I commend the players, they have done well. The management and the sponsors have also done well.
“It was a well deserved victory considering that Plateau United are a very good side. They gave us a strong fight today, the standard of the game was very high. It was very competitive and we could see the standard of play as the one involving the top two teams.
“I think today, we’ve separated the boys from the men. It is very clear that we are ahead with the good football we played and resounding victory,” he added.
Plateau United coach Fidelis Ilechukwu also tacitly admitted the race to the title is over but said his side must continue to fight.
“We cannot give up but today has shown that Rivers United are a step closer to the title because they are a great team with great coaches and management. They have done so well and if at the end of the day they win it, they deserve it because they have shown character.
“In football, the only thing that makes difference is goals. Because Rivers United scored two goals today, they are the best team and that’s the reason it is easy to see our errors. If we had scored one or two goals, we may not see the errors because goals boost morale and it is everything in football”, Ilechukwu said.
At Akwa City Stadium, Rangers consolidated on the third spot with Christian Nnaji producing a brace in the 2-1 victory over Wikki Tourists. and also close the gap on Plateau United from nine to six points.
Nnaji’s first goal arrived in the 13th minute. But Christopher John cancelled that lead in the 38th minute for the visitors. That relief lasted only 11 minutes before Nnaji added his second goal to win maximum points for the Flying Antelopes.
Winning their back-to-back home fixtures have seen Enyimba rise to fourth on the log, from seventh two Matchdays ago. Chukwuemeka Obioma in the 29th and Samuel Stone in the 79th ensured that the People’s Elephant beat Sunshine Stars returned to Akure empty-handed.
That resurgence by Enyimba and Remo’s failure to sustain their lead over Shooting Stars in Ibadan resulted in the Sky Blue Stars dropping one step to fifth.
Sikiru Alimi had shot Remo ahead via the spot in the seventh minute. But that lasted only five minutes as Ebuka Anaekwe ensured that the Oluyole Warriors record their second successive draw in front of their fans.
In Makurdi, a dominant second half display orchestrated by substitute Olamilekan Adams helped Lobi Stars to a 3-1 victory over Kwara United.
Adams came in for John Chukwudi at the start of second half after both sides settled for one goal apiece in the first half and made instant impact as he scored and created an assist to give Lobi two goals cushion in the first 10 minutes of the restart.
The remaining parts of the game was a ding dong affair as both sides couldn’t find a cutting edge to change the scoreline.
The Ortom Boys could have taken the lead in the opening 15 minutes when Jide Williams brought down Martins Usule in the box but Chinonso Okonkwo missed from the spot.
Okonkwo’s goal arrived in the 21st minute when he took his time before shooting beyond the reach of Ishola from Barnabas Imenger Jr’s pass.
The goal looked to have served as wake up call for Kwara as they took control of the game with series of attacks initiated by Issa Gata, Ayobami Junior and Samad Kadiri.
The spells resulted to an equaliser for the visitors as Tiza Samuel rose above Ganda Samuel to head home Kadiri’s cross with three minutes to end the first half.
The introduction of Adams, Chukwuka Onuwa and David Tyavkase changed the tempo of the game for Lobi Stars and it worked for them as they combined well to restore their lead through Adams two minutes into restart.
The young winger became a provider eight minutes after as he outwitted Kwara defenders before finding Barnabas Imenger Jr in the box with a through pass and the the lanky forward placed past Ishola.
The host took control of the match from then on but looked comfortable with the two goal cushion as they also prevented Kwara from reducing the deficit.
Lobi’s head coach, Ter Akombo, who stood in for Technical Adviser, Mohammed Baba Ganaru said the result was a reflection of the team’s hard work.
Still in the relegation zone, Akombo pleaded with Lobi fans to keep faith with the team as they work to beat the drop.
“Its a good match for us. We are very comfortable with how we approached it especially in the second half. We couldn’t get it right earlier which made us to make quick changes and it worked.
“We are still not there yet with how we want to play but I want to appeal to our fans to believe in us and keep the faith till the end”, he said.
Akwa United had themselves to blame, missing glaring opportunities in the first half as they battled MFM goalless in Uyo. Adam Yakubu and David Onovo should have put the Uyo side in front in the 6th and 12th minutes, but failed to make it count despite having perfect control of the ball inside the penalty area on both occasions.
A late opportunity for Seth Mayi on 89th minute could have sealed the fixture for Ayeni’s men, but his effort from 15 metres slightly skipped target.
Acting head coach of Kwara United, Lukman Ijaiya described the defeat as painful and he blamed it on loss of concentration.
He told www.npfl.ng that the Harmony Boys would re-group early to claim the match points against Katsina United on Sunday.
Eighth placed Akwa United coach Deji Ayeni was left disappointed after his team failed to convert begging opportunities.
Seven games to the end of the campaign, the Promise Keepers had hoped that a result for them against the Lagos side would put the team in strong position for a possible late push for a continental spot.
But the former Sunshine Stars handler, who joined the league champions in mid-season, still nursed the belief that his team could still pursue a third place finish despite the result.
“The continental ticket is still very possible. We may have not gotten it right today, but all hope is not lost. We played a team (MFM) struggling to breathe. They gave everything for the point. We can also get something from our next game in Owerri,” Ayeni said.
MFM coach Festus Allen is confident his side can beat the drop if they can put up such spirited display in the coming matches. The Lagos side remained a place from bottom, two points better than Dakkada, who have two games to spare.
Gombe United saw their three-goal lead nearly cancelled by Heartland in a fixture that got their fans worked up after the visitors made a late push to score two goals in the last 30 minutes.
The restlessness in the stands did not escape Gombe coach, Aliyu Zubairu who would later express displeasure at the hostile reaction of the fans during the match.
The home fans began booing their players even when they were still leading towards the end of the game and this, Zubairu believes was not the right attitude.
“Gombe fans need to change their character, they are no longer motivating these boys, even when they are leading they were still not okay. it’s not motivating at all”, lamented Zubairu
Gombe leading goal scorer Abdulazeez Yusuf tapped home from close range to open the scoring for the host in the last moment of the tough first half. The forward has now level on goals with Rivers United duo of Ishaq Rafiu and Chijioke Akuneto on 14 goals at the top of the league’s goal-scoring chat.
Ismail Bello, who came off the bench during the first half after replacing injured Issa Abdullahi, made an immediate impact by providing an assist to the first goal before recording his name on the score sheet just two minutes after the restart. Usman Abbas’s delivery met the sensational winger inside Heartland box and he reacted perfectly with a beautiful finish to beat Femi Thomas in goal.
Gombe scored another well-worked goal just after the hour mark when Kelechi Chimezie laid a set piece for awaiting Barnabas Daniel, who blasted a low strike beyond the reach of the Thomas.
At the Muhammadu Dikko Stadium in Katsina, two second half goals by Ahmed Taofeek and Madaki Alkali Dauda handed Katsina United victory over Niger Tornadoes.
Both Taofeek and Dauda came on as substitutes on 61 minutes in place of Omaka Chukwudi and Mustapha Salisu.
Taofeek headed in the first goal off a Madaki Dauda’s cross in the 67th minute, while Tosin Omoyele assisted Madaki to double the lead moments later.
The home side dominated the first stanza as they eagerly pressed forward in search of goals, but were wasteful in some clear cut chances.
Dauda shared his delight at the result after the win having assisted one and scored the second goal.
“I am very happy to have assisted and scored one of the goals. I and Ahmed watched from the bench as our opponents held us to stalemate heading to the break, but we got a better clue from the coach that worked for us as we came on board”, said an excited Madaki.
The win propelled Katsina United to 13th on the league table, having amassed 39 points from 31 games and there next match is a trip to Kwara on Sunday.
Results: Akwa United 0-0 MFM, Rangers 2-1 Wikki Tourists, Enyimba 2-0 Sunshine Stars, Gombe United 3-2 Heartland, Katsina United 2-0 Niger Tornadoes, Lobi Stars 3-1 Kwara United, Shooting Stars 1-1 Remo Stars, Nasarawa United 2-1 Abia Warriors, Rivers United 2-0 Plateau United
Postponed: Kano Pillars v Dakkada FC (15th June)