Lobi Stars are early pacesetters as the 2018/2019 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) Super Six Playoffs kicked off in Lagos on Tuesday.
The Makurdi based side outclassed FC Ifeanyiubah 3-1 to shoot to the top of the log after the first round of matches ahead of Enyimba who narrowly edged out Rangers 1-0 and Akwa United who shared the spoils with Kano Pillars after their encounter ended 2-2.
The Super Six Playoffs, contested by the three best teams from both groups of the regular season – Enugu Rangers, Lobi Stars and Enyimba in Group A and Akwa United, Kano Pillars and FC Ifeanyiubah in Group – will decide the league champions and determine three of four continental spots for the forthcoming season. The top two teams qualify to represent Nigeria in the CAF Champions League (CCL) while the third-placed team will compete in the CAF Confederation Cup (CCC).
The Oriental Derby between familiar rivals Enyimba and Enugu Rangers kicked started proceedings at a sun-kissed Agege Township Stadium. Both sides had shared a home win apiece in the regular season with Rangers edging out Enyimba 1-0 in Enugu and Enyimba triumphing 3-1 in the return fixture in Aba but neither side, however, was willing to give up too much in a neutral venue.
In a cagey first half of few chances, Enyimba were the more dominant side with Ikechukwu Ibenegbu in particular at the centre of all their good work.
Ibenegbu, who had earned a yellow card in the 22nd minute rather harshly, for simulation after he went down under a heavy challenge from Semiu Liadi, exchanged a series of one-twos in the 32nd minute with Joseph Osadiaye who scuffed his shot with just Nana Bonsu left to beat in goal for Rangers. Ibenegbu then crashed a free kick from 22 yards against the frame of the post in the 44th minute in the only notable pieces of action in a drab first half.
The second half got off to a more enterprising start with Enyimba taking the lead five minutes after the restart through Osadiaye who ran on to Ibrahim Mustapha’s through ball to drive a fierce shot past Nana Bonsu in goal for Rangers. It was nearly two just a minute later after Mustapha’s lob from the edge of the area beat Bonsu but narrowly evaded the goal.
Rangers head coach Gbenga Ogunbote responded to going behind to his former side by withdrawing Chidiebere Okolie and throwing on forward Ibrahim Ajani whose presence immediately livened up The Flying Antelopes’ attack.
The forward dribbled into Enyimba’s area in the 72nd minute and found fellow substitute Ifeanyi Egwim with an inviting centre but Egwim could only perform an air kick as the chance went begging. Five minutes prior to that chance, Ifeanyi George had also fired embarrassingly wide when through on the Enyimba goal.
Enyimba held on for the win to earn bragging rights over their South Eastern neighbours and an excellent start to their post-season.
What followed next was a proper humdinger of a match, a blood and thunder encounter between Group B foes Kano Pillars and Akwa United that ended two all.
Pillars were looking to get the better of The Promise Keepers after failing to take maximum points from the Uyo based side in the regular season. United had earned a 1-1 draw against The Sai Masu Gida in Kano before triumphing 3-0 in Uyo in the return fixture.
Pillars made their intentions pretty clear with a blistering start that saw them go a goal up in the 3rd minute through Ebuka David’s strike.
Ibrahim Musa’s side, though a potent attacking force, have a penchant for conceding from crosses and set pieces which United duly exploited. In fact, two of United’s goals in the 3-0 drubbing meted out to Pillars in Uyo, came via headers from set pieces – a weakness Rafael Everton remembered all too well but one which Musa’s side for whatever reason, failed to eradicate.
United were level through Ndifreke Effiong who was left all alone in the box to head home an inswinger from the left flank. Pillars were back in front just two minutes later when Nwagua Nyima took advantage of a melee in United’s box to poke home.
But their lead didn’t last as their weakness from set pieces proved to be their undoing just three minutes later.
Mfon Udoh had come on for a belligerent Alberico Da Silva who had earlier received a booking for a foul on Chris Madaki and looked like a ticking time bomb. United had won a free kick to the left of Pillars’ area just before Udoh came on and the striker’s first act was to swing the free kick straight onto the forehead of Aniefiok Godspower who planted a firm header beyond Idrissu Ibrahim to draw United level.
Pillars are pegged back by yet another header in the box and the three goals scored in six minutes, a testament to the breathlessness of the tie. There could have been further goals too, Olorunleke Ojo theatrically saving Auwal Malam’s fierce volley from a Rabiu Ali diagonal.
The second half brought no further goals but not for want of chances with Udoh in particular guilty of some head-scratching misses.
The striker sprung Pillars’ offside trap in the 52nd minute and raced clear only to scuff his effort straight at Idrissu. He then found Cyril Olisema with a peach of a cross but Olisema’s glancing header skipped narrowly wide of Idrissu’s right post.
Ebuka David then got on the end of a flowing Pillars’ move in the 80th minute only to trip and fall over the ball with just Ojo to beat in United’s goal. The miss of the day followed two minutes later.
Aniefiok Godspower did Ifeanyi Nweke for pace on the left flank, and put in a low cross for Udoh who was unmarked and alone in the box with the goal at his mercy. The striker, however, contrived to miss the gaping goal from about three yards and the chance to garner all three points for his side, leaving fans in shock and Everton in disbelief.
It was a miss reminiscent of Yakubu Aiyegbeni’s scarcely believable blooper against South Korea at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. Pillars’ Ifeanyi Nweke was then sent off for violent conduct in the 90th minute with the referee bringing an end to proceedings a few minutes later.
Lobi Stars comfortably outclassed FC Ifeanyiubah 3-1 in the day’s final piece of action which was played under floodlights.
The meeting marked the first encounter in the Super Six between teams which qualified from different groups with Lobi Stars entering the playoffs from Group A while FC Ifeanyiubah competed in Group B during the regular season.
Much like the match that preceded it, there were plenty of goals with Stars drawing first blood in the 3rd minute through Samad Kadiri. Ebetomane Tega responded for FC Ifeanyiubah in the 40th minute but the crossbar prevented Stars from going into the break with their lead restored after Samuel Mathias’ freekick rebounded off the upright to safety.
Samad Kadiri restored Stars’ lead in the 60th minute after he latched on to strike partner Sikiru Alimi’s pass to score at the second attempt after his initial effort had come off the post. Alimi then got in on the action three minutes later with an exquisitely executed bicycle kick to extend Stars’ lead to 3-1.
FC Ifeanyiubah rallied and fought for a way back but Ospino Egbe produced an outstanding double save from Emmanuel Matthew and Uche Ihuarulam to preserve Stars’ lead and firmly shut the door against FC Ifeanyiubah.
2018/2019 NPFL SUPER SIX MATCH DAY 1 RESULTS
ENYIMBA 1-0 ENUGU RANGERS
(Joseph Osadiaye 50’)
KANO PILLARS 2-2 AKWA UNITED
(David Ebuka 3’, Nwagua Nyima 33’ – Ndifreke Effiong 31’, Aniefiok Godspower 37’)
FC IFEANYIUBAH 1-3 LOBI STARS
(Ebetomane Tega 40’ – Samad Kadiri 3’ 60’, Sikiru Alimi 63’)