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Unheralded goalkeeper, Darlington Ovunda was the unlikely hero for Rivers United as the ‘Pride of Rivers’ defeated Lobi Stars 5-3 on penalty shoot outs to reach the semifinals of Nigeria’s oldest football competition, the AITEO Cup.

Ovunda saved once and converted the decisive kick in the shootout as United put themselves within striking distance of the showpiece game.

The Port Harcourt club will now meet Niger Tornadoes in the last four in the competition.

Friday’s quarter final decided at the Dipo Dina Stadium, Ijebu-Ode was one of few clear cut goal scoring opportunities so it was unsurprising that the stand out moment in regulation time was an extraordinary save by United goalkeeper, Abiodun Akande to keep out Kadiri Timileyin’s goal bound effort in the 79th minute.

United’s best chance in an extremely tight first was a backward header by Ossy Martins which the Lobi goalkeeper, Kayode Olufemi stopped with ease in the 25th minute.

Two minutes later, Lobi almost took the lead but a fine Akande save after the attacker hit a stunning half volley from just inside the box denied the pacy Timiletyin.

Lobi enjoyed the better chances in the second half and came close to taking the lead 11 minutes after the restart.

It was the ever lively Timileyin at the tip of the Lobi spear again as his curling effort from eight yards failed to trouble the outstanding Akande in the United goal.

United barely had a sniff in the second half but Lobi’s forwards were also frustrated for long spells as defences dominated.

With penalties looming, the Technical Manager of United, Stanley Eguma made an inspired move, withdrawing Akande and throwing in the largely unknown Ovunda in his place with less than five minutes remaining.

Eguma also withdrew Bright Onyedikachi and threw penalty expert, Chigozie Ihunda into the fray.

The substitutions would prove to be a masterstroke as United dominated in the shootout.

Konan Ruffin, Temple Emekayi, Ihunda and Bakary Bamba stepped up in nerveless fashion to convert United’s first four kicks in the shootout.

Lobi were however staring down the barrel after their first four kicks in the shootout.

Olamidare Ojo, Ebube Duru and Samuel Matthias all scored for the ‘Pride of Benue’ but a stunning save by Ovunda to deny Lobi’s first penalty taker, Sikiru Alimi meant that United’s fifth kick was the a potential decider.

So it proved as the man for the big occasion, Ovunda stepped to covert and put United into the semifinal.

Ovunda was understandably pleased with his heroic display as he shared his sentiments with the club’s official website,

“I can’t express the joy I feel right now. I feel so happy and I thank my teammates for the support they gave me,” he said.

“Now, we want to do well in the semifinal and try to reach the final,” he concluded.

Eguma also fielded questions after the hard-fought win.

“Once we saw the draw and knew we would face Lobi, we knew we were in for a very big battle.

“I studied Lobi at the Super Six where I watched them play.

“They succeeded in stopping us from scoring during regulation time which was impressive (from their perspective) as we had been scoring goals in the previous rounds.

“We showed more composure during the shootout and deserved to win in the end,” he said.

Kunle Solaja is the author of landmark books on sports and journalism as well as being a multiple award-winning journalist and editor of long standing. He is easily Nigeria’s foremost soccer diarist and Africa's most capped FIFA World Cup journalist, having attended all FIFA World Cup finals from Italia ’90 to Qatar 2022. He was honoured at the Qatar 2022 World Cup by FIFA and AIPS.

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