BY SAMMY WEJINYA.
A gutsy second half performance by Rivers United proved decisive in Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Enugu Rangers as the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) entered match day four.
Bakary Bamba and Malachi Ohawume scored for United while Ibrahim Olawoyin’s consolation was sandwiched in between the hosts’ goals.
United dominated a largely one-sided first half that saw Rangers manage a single goal attempt, a 30-yard free kick by Isiaka Oladuntoye in the 39th minute, hit more in hope than expectation.
The home side should have taken the lead in the 29th minute after some inspired work by Ishaq Rafiu down the flanks but Fortune Omoniwari’s goal bound effort from eight yards was somehow kept out by the Rangers goalkeeper, Seidu Mutawakilu.
United were not deterred by that outstanding stop by the Rangers keeper and continued to step on the accelerator.
Sustained pressure unsurprisingly led to mistakes at the Rangers rear as a goal-bound Ifenyi Onyeali was brutally upended in the box in the 31st minute with the referee, Nura Abubakar quick to point to the spot.
Reliable midfielder, Bamba is a cool customer from 12 yards and he promptly stepped forward, picked his spot precisely with frightening force into the corner with Mutawakilu going the right way but finding the venom behind the strike too hot to handle.
It represented his second goal of the season, after he scored, also from the spot, against Heartland FC, at the same venue on match day two.
United should have added two more goals before the interval but Fortune Omoniwari and Cletus Emotan wasted glorious identical opportunities when it seemed more difficult to miss.
Rangers made sure United rued those missed chances as they restored parity with their first real attack of the game.
Olawoyin displayed the typical poacher’s instinct as he stabbed home from close range after United uncharacteristically failed to clear their lines from a corner.
That goal acted like a shot in the arm for Rangers who suddenly looked a side reborn, first to ever second ball and menacing on the break while United on their part looked jaded and shell shocked.
Rangers could have taken a shock 2-1 lead moments later when the usually-reliable Abiodun Akande performed an uncharacteristic howler when trying to play out from the back but his blushes were spared by the referee’s whistle for a foul on Rangers’ Chiamaka Madu.
Then came the turning point in the game, a moment of genius from the bench as the technical manager of Rivers United, Stanley Eguma threw on striker, Ohawume in the 73rd minute.
Ohawume scored with his first touch in the Rangers box, less than two minutes after coming on, a deft chip worthy to win any game.
It proved to be a moment of redemption for the attacker who had goals controversially disallowed in Kano against Pillars on match day one and against Heartland in Port Harcourt on match day two.
To their credit, Rangers never gave up as they pushed the hosts hard in the closing stages in search of the equalizer.
United however defended brilliantly while controlling the rest of the game and creating several dangerous moments of their own in a high-octane contest that will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it the Yakubu Gown Stadium, Port Harcourt.
Assistant coach of Rangers, Gabriel Ezema said the game was decided in the second half.
“The game was won and lost in the second half,” he said when quizzed, post match by the official Rivers United website, www.riversunitedfc.com.ng
“Rangers had an equalizer in the second half.
“We were in control of the game and we had an opportunity to go (2-1) up…it didn’t happen so.
“We lost concentration in the last 15 minutes and we conceded. It was so unfortunate,” he said.
On his part, Eguma said he expected a tough game from the visitors but commended his team for eventually getting their noses over the line.
“It was a tough game but I expected it especially as Rangers lost their last game at home. I knew they were coming (to Port Harcourt) play the game of their lives.
“Their equalizer did not demoralize us and we worked hard to get the winner,” he said.
Rivers United have now climbed to ninth on the log with five points from four matches while Rangers dropped to 12th on the log with four points from the same number of games.
Rivers United will now make the trip to Warri to face Wolves on Sunday as the competition enters match day five.