June, 10 2023.
After 12 games, four each for the six clubs, the Nigeria Premier Football League, (NPFL) Championship Play-off began to show more clarity as the decisive final round of games hold on Sunday on the synthetic blades of the Mobolaji Johnson Arena at Onikan area of the Lagos Island.
The defining round of games were played from the sunny Friday afternoon and Cup holders, Rivers United established real intent to keep hold of the title but now have serial winners, Enyimba to contend with in the very last game of MatchDay 5.
Following a 2-1 defeat of Bendel Insurance in the All-Group-Leaders clash, Rivers United were temporarily at the top but it only lasted until Enyimba put up a commanding performance to beat Sunshine Stars 3-0.
With both sides on 8 points after four games and Enyimba enjoying the edge on goals difference, the battle for the ₦100m top prize is poised for the last fixture on Sunday between the two sides from neighbouring cities of Aba and Port Harcourt.
On Friday, the MatchDay 4 high noon clash had pitched for the first time this season, Group A winners, Rivers United and Group B table toppers, Bendel Insurance.
With both sides drawing their Matchday 3 games, coming into their Friday schedule, the first 45mins was cagey until Maurice Chukwu put Rivers United in front in added time, with the last kick after clinically dispatching his strike into the roof of the net off a corner kick which Bendel Insurance failed to clear.
Not to be deterred, the Benin Arsenal took the battle to the defending champions but had nothing to show for it despite the introduction of Vincent Augustus, Imade Osarenkhoe and Efe Aghama.
Like they did in the first period, the Stanley Eguma led side again scored late into the second half after a counter attacking run paid off with two substitutes, Ukeme Williams and Onoja Joseph combining with the unmarked Onoja Joseph slamming home a cut back from Williams.
Divine Nwachukwu, on a day he received his Super Eagles call up rose the highest in the box to nod home a cross from Vincent Augustus in what will only serve as a consolation for the boys in yellow.
The defeat ensured a halt to Bendel Insurance’s 21 match unbeaten run in the 2022/23 NPFL season.
It also saw Bendel Insurance lose a match in the NPFL for the first time since they lost to Rivers United in 2019. It was the first time they faced Rivers United since the defeat at the Sharks Stadium in May 2019.
They had an unbeaten run of 26 matches, winning 12 and drawing 14 in all competitions this season.
Two goals from Junior Lokosa and Adams Olamilekan in a blistering 10mins of the first half handed Remo Stars their first win of the championship play-off over Lobi Stars.
The two goalscorers were starting a game together for the first time in the play-off and duly rewarded their Coach's confidence in them when Junior Lokosa first met a solid cross from Sodiq Ismail to nod home in the 17th minute.
Lobi Stars failing to advance play were made to pay as Seun Ogunribide’s cross was met with a composed curler from Adams Olamilekan in the 27th minute.
Lobi Stars who are the only team yet to score in Lagos, had nothing to show for in the second period as it was all about the Sky Blue stars with Lokosa, Ojo and Mayi all missing good chance.
The game would end 2-0 in favour of the Ikenne boys as Bankole Kayode recorded his first clean sheet of the play-off.
The result means Remo Stars must avoid defeat against Bendel Insurance in their final play-off game on Sunday to stand a chance of qualifying for CAF’s inter club competition.
Under the floodlights, it was Sunshine Stars against Enyimba, with the People’s Elephant fully aware that Rivers United had gone top of the group after results from afternoon.
Not bothered, Chijioke Mbaoma scored a five minutes brace to settle the nerves at the MJA Arena.
First, Mbaoma pounced on a throw in by Uwana Asuquo in which the Sunshine Stars backline failed to deal with and saw him smash a one time volley for what is the fastest goal of this year’s play-off at 02:22secs.
Not done yet, Ekene Awazie divided the Akure Gunners line to slide rule a pass to Mbaoma who wouldn’t miss with the goalkeeper rushing already.
Lead intact, back on top of the table but Enyimba didn’t close shop as Ikenna Cooper scored his team’s third goal.
Cooper scored from a freekick with Mustapha Lawal fumbling the midfielder’s effort in the 66th minute to all but dash Sunshine Stars’ slim hope of a continental ticket.
Three wins in three games for separate clubs, eight goals in total. Matchday 4 was a marked difference to MatchDay 3 that had three draws.
Enyimba remain top of the group after the day’s activities with eight points, same as Rivers United but with a better goal difference of +4.
Remo Stars occupy the third position with six points while Bendel Insurance are 4th with three points.
Lobi Stars and Sunshine Stars both have two points, with the former 5th and the latter, 6th.
The Championship Play-off will determine the winner of the 2022/23 NPFL season and will also throw up the two teams that will fly Nigeria’s flag at next year’s CAF Champions League, while the third-placed team will be playing in the CAF Confederation Cup.
Credit: Michael Imianvan.