The calm before the storm: a phrase coined surely just for the bonkers 3-3 draw in the 7 pm kickoff between Akwa United and Rangers in the 2018/2019 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) Championship Playoffs on Saturday.
A calm, largely uneventful first half in which Rangers’ Isiaka Oladuntoye’s booking in the 37th minute – an event which would go on to have a bearing on the rest of the game – the only event of note in a drab first half between two teams who topped their respective groups in the regular season.
If the first half was calm, the second truly exploded into a storm. And what a storm it was. When it began, it didn’t just rain – it poured. A blizzard of six goals in forty-seven second half minutes providing a delicious spectacle for fans and a fitting end to the day’s programme.
At the end, Nana Bonsu the Rangers goalkeeper lay stricken on the turf, scarcely able to believe what just happened – and his role in it. He’d been partly at fault for United’s second goal when Rangers led 3-1 with just three minutes left and perhaps that weighed heavily on him. His coach, Gbenga Ogunbote didn’t seem any better. At 1-0 and a man down, he probably would have taken the draw but definitely not like this. Not having being on the verge of victory only to concede a leveler with virtually the last kick of the game.
Rafael Everton said his team had panicked after conceding the equalizer – a damning commentary on the mental state of his side. But in any event, they showed great character to keep going until the end.
They did start the second half in blistering fashion though, earning a penalty just within two minutes of the restart. The ball had been handled in Rangers’ box and Cyril Olisema dispatched the resultant spot kick to put Akwa in front with his third goal of the tournament.
Going behind appeared to inject life into Rangers and they nearly got back on level terms but Ojo Olorunleke thrice denied them with three spectacular saves from Godwin Aguda, Ugwu Uwadiegwu and one from point-blank range to deny Bobby Clement all in a space of six minutes.
Rangers’ drive seemed to have been derailed when Oladuntoye was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 61st minute but the Flying Antelopes responded to that adversity with even more vigour and were level just three minutes later when Chiamaka Madu placed a header that even Olorunleke had no answer to.
Akwa were on the backfoot and Everton introduced Emmanuel Charles and Mfon Udoh to try and steady the ship but the stormy waters that was Rangers wasn’t to be calmed and the Flying Antelopes did their utmost to shipwreck Akwa’s title bid with a further two goals which came within two minutes of each other.
Both goals were scored in identical fashion with Bobby Clement twice rinsing Tope Olusesi on the left to cross for Michael Uchebo to score first with a tap in and then a header. Cries of “Holy! Holy! Rangers Another Champion!” rent the air from fans of the Enugu based side. Rangers had scored three times in just six minutes.
With victory in sight, Ogunbote threw on Senegalese defender Pape Ousmane for midfielder Ugochukwu Ugwuoke who was himself a first-half substitute for Ibrahim Ajani who was subbed off in the first half for a second straight game. But Rangers’ bid to defend their lead proved futile and perhaps their penchant for continuously falling to the ground for no discernable reason except perhaps to waste time ultimately cost them in the end with the referee signaling for five additional minutes to be played which was ample time for Akwa to snatch.
Mfon Udoh whose first act as a substitute in Akwa’s 2-2 draw against Kano Pillars on Match Day 1 was to fashion out an assist for Akwa’s equalizer was once again instrumental as his laser-like deliveries from set pieces found Dennis Nya’s head on two occasions – first from a free kick in the 87th minute where Bonsu should have done better and again from a corner in the fourth minute of added time to spare Akwa’s blushes.
In truth Rangers’ defending for the third goal was abysmal and they have only themselves to blame for the draw which felt like a defeat after all their heroics.
Earlier in the 3 pm kickoff, Kano Pillars condemned FC Ifeanyiubah to a third consecutive defeat thanks in no small part to a hugely controversial first-half penalty which set the Sai Masu Gida on the path to a 2-1 win over the Anambra Warriors.
FC Ifeanyiubah had started the brighter of both sides with right back Promise James rattling the woodwork in the 9th minute and Chinonso Udeh’s goal-bound shot deflected out for a corner in the 25th minute. Pillars were however handed a penalty on the stroke of halftime after Charles Okafor appeared to impede Ebuka David in the box.
In truth, it was a harsh decision as David who had already lost the ball, barged into Okafor to make it seem like he was being impeded. FC Ifeanyiubah were livid and their protests held up the game for over five minutes but they eventually accepted the referee’s decision and Rabiu Ali duly dispatched the penalty straight down the middle to send Pillars into the break with the lead.
Ebuka made it 2-0 for Pillars in the 63rd minute with his second goal of the tournament after Ali and Nwagua Nyima combined to set him free down the left. Anozie Chinedu saved his initial effort but he followed through to slot in the rebound.
FC Ifeanyiubah knew anything short of a victory would render their presence in the playoffs meaningless and they duly rallied to pull one back through Emmanuel Matthew whose long-range effort evaded Surejo Ayeleso’s despairing dive.
Pillars could have had another penalty after substitute Adamu Hassan’s shot was stopped by Okafor’s hand but the referee waved off Pillars’ claims. They had further chances to increase their tally with second-half substitute Nzube Anaezemba crashing a free kick against the crossbar and Yusuf Maigoro managing to sky his shot from three yards after Anaezemba had found him with a precise cross. It ended 2-1 and Pillars have now scored exactly two goals in each of their three matches.
Sandwiched between both matches was Enyimba’s 3-1 defeat of Lobi Stars in the 5 pm kickoff. Lobi lost Samad Kadiri to injury in the 24th minute and while that could be held up as an excuse for their reticence upfront, they’d be hard pressed to explain how they managed to concede twice in one minute.
Abdulrahman Bashir put Enyimba in front in the 39th minute and before Lobi could regroup, they were two goals down the very next minute through Stanley Dimgba who stole in to head in at the far post.
Lobi shook off their stupor to pull one back through Samuel Mathias whose rocket of a shot was too much for Theophilus Afelokhai to handle and the Enyimba goalie could only watch as his attempted save only helped the ball into the net.
Lobi poured forward in search of an equalizer in the second half but they were caught out in the 66th minute as Dimgba scored a diving header from Reuben Bala’s inviting cross to condemn Lobi to a second straight loss.
After three round of matches, unbeaten Kano Pillars lead the way with seven points one more than Enyimba in second. Akwa United also without a defeat in the playoffs are third with five points while Rangers hold the fourth position with four points. Lobi have three points in fifth while FC Ifeanyiubah bring up the rear having lost all their matches.
Match Day 4 on Monday 10 June will see Rangers take on Kano Pillars in the early kickoff, while Lobi Stars battle Akwa United in the 5 pm kickoff. Enyimba would look to take all three points against FC Ifeanyiubah who will be looking to halt their run of consecutive losses when both teams take to the pitch in the day’s last piece of action.
2018/2019 NPFL SUPER SIX MATCH DAY 1 RESULTS
KANO PILLARS 2-1 FC IFEANYIUBAH
(Rabiu Ali 45+5 (pen), David Ebuka 63’ –Emmanuel Matthew 65’)
LOBI STARS 1-3 ENYIMBA
(Samuel Mathias 45+2 – Abdulrahman Bashir 39’, Stanley Dimgba 40’, 66’)
AKWA UNITED 3-3 ENUGU RANGERS
(Cyril Olisema 47’ (pen), Dennis Nya 87’, 90+4 – Chiamaka Madu 64’, Michael Uchebo 68’ 70’)
2018/2019 NPFL CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFF STANDINGS AT MD3