Chinonso Eziekwe’s strike, shortly before half time earned Enugu Rangers a deserved 1-0 win over Rivers United in a Nigeria Professional Football League game decided in Enugu on Sunday.
The goal on 39 minutes came off a devastating counter attack as United failed to make the most of a freekick won deep in the Rangers half moments earlier.
The Port Harcourt club stay in second place on the standings but are now four points off top spot after the leaders, Plateau United overcame Nasarawa United 2-1 in Jos.
United were distinctly second best against a Rangers team that could have won more handsomely if they’d converted the plethora of chances that fell their way.
Rangers dominated the early exchanges but had to wait until the ninth minute for their first real goalscoring opportunity.
It fell to Israel Abia who was teed up brilliantly by Eziekwe.
Abia struck hard enough from close range but saw his effort easily saved by the Rivers United goalkeeper, Drissa Bamba.
Two minutes later, United had a glorious opportunity to take the lead when Stephen Gopey raced into the Rangers box with poise and intent.
He however chose the wrong option of passing to Ogbonna Onuoha, who was in an offside position, rather than aim to score himself.
A minute later, the visitors came close again as Gopey shot into the side netting after brilliantly being set up by Esor.
Rangers then steadied the ship after the momentary blip and retook control of proceedings.
Two minutes before the 20-ninute mark, they (Rangers) came agonisingly close to putting their noses in front when Eziekwe just about failed to reach a teasing delivery from a set piece which Bamba made a futile attempt to punch away from the penalty area.
The slightest of touches from the Rangers man would have seen the United net bulge and the United goalkeeper would have been clearly culpable.
United then had a gilt-edged chance in the 28th minute but he shot wide from eight yards when it seemed easier to keep the Rangers goalkeeper, Nana Bonsu honest.
Rangers continued to dominate without hitting the underbelly of their visitors who were obviously the happier of the two sides at that point until the breakthrough arrived with just six minutes remaining before the interval.
United earned a freekick almost level with the Rangers penalty area and right back, Godswill Kazie delivered in less than exemplary fashion.
The loose ball, following a Rangers clearance, fell to Ibrahim Olawoyin who stormed forward with menace.
Olawoyin fed Abia who in turn teed up Eziekwe and the attacker proceeded to finish with frightening force, albeit at the second time of asking following an initial brave stop by Bamba, into the top corner.
It was a breathtaking finish which was the least the home side’s dominance deserved at that point.
Rangers had two more opportunities to double their account before the break, as they refused to seat on their solitary goal lead but Ugo Ugokwe and and Abia saw their efforts kept out by some resolute United defending.
The second half commenced with the hosts starting in brisk fashion, carving out two excellent opportunities, within three minutes of the restart.
Only a shocking display of selfishness by Abia who opted to go it all alone with an unmarked Eziekwe screaming for the ball in the United penalty area in the 48th minute, kept the visitors in the contest.
Six minutes later, heroic albeit unconventional defending by Kunle Odunlami prevented Abia from hammering into an unguarded net after some dare-devil dribbling by Olawoyin on the near side at the expense of Temple Emekayi who was having a torrid evening to forget.
Two minutes later, the hosts enjoyed two excellent opportunities, thirty seconds within each one as they smelled blood and honed in for the kill.
United were reeling and technical manager, Stanley Eguma responded by effecting a double substitution with Konan N’gouan and Fortune Omoniwari replaced Shuji Oshobe and Ognonna Onuoha respectively.
The alterations did little to stem the tide of wave after wave of Rangers attacks as Abia came agonisingly close to doubling the hosts’ lead on 59 minutes.
He left the usually peerless Emekayi for dead as he sped past him like a statue but for the umpteenth time, chose the wrong option as he attempted an extraordinary no look strike rather than hone in on goal towards the badly exposed Bamba.
United looked like a pale imitation of the side that have impressed so many time this season and one that came into the game boasting a five-game streak without defeat.
They however carved out their best chance of the game in the 70th minute when Bakari Bamba struck a fierce shot which Bonsu stopped with minimal effort.
Rangers should have doubled their money with 16 minutes remaining when Abia came face to face with Bamba but the attacker fired a wayward effort into orbit.
United improved marginally in the final quarter hour but looked unlikely to score.
Rangers had the next and last big goalscoring opening when Ifeanyi Nweke managed to create space in the United box but saw his fierce shot saved by the impressive Bamba who didn’t do much wrong on the day.
Assistant coach of Rangers International, Mangut Mbwas spoke to the official Rivers United FC website, www.riversunitedfc.com.ng after the game.
“We worked so hard and everything we did (worked out),” he said.
“We were able to possess the ball and had a better transition from defence to attack.
“We needed to circulate the ball effectively and deny them from having many opportunities,” he said.
Eguma also voiced his sentiments after the game.
“The two teams played good football but Rangers put more pressure on us and it paid off (for them) towards the closing stages of the first half,” he said.
Rivers United have now amassed 42 points from 24 points and will next face Warri Wolves in Port Harcourt on Wednesday.
Nana Bonsu, Tope Olusesi (Osas Okoro 73′), Ifeanyi Nweke, Uche John, Franklin Anthony, Anthony Shimaga, Ugo Ugwuoke (Kenechukwu Agu 55′), Chiamaka Madu, Israel Abia, Ibrahim Olawoyin and Chinonso Eziekwe (Sadiq Abass 80′).
Substitutes not used
Seidu Mutawakilu, Nnamdi Egbujuo, Emmanuel Nwokeji and Traore Issif.
Drissa Bamba, Kazie Enyinnaya, Bamba Bakary, Lookman Binuyo, Kunle Odunlami, Temple Emekayi, Cletus Emotan, Stephen Gopey, Ogbonna Onuoha (Fortune Omoniwari 57′), Shuji Oshobe (N’Gouan Konan 57′) and Esor Nelson (Rafiu Ishaq 75′).
Substitutes not used
Ospino Egbe, Peter Ubakanma, Orji Kalu and Malachi Ohawume.
Enugu Rangers: Chinonso Eziekwe 39′
Rivers United: Nil
Enugu Rangers: Uche John 27′
Rivers United: Kazie Enyinnaya 56′
Red Cards: Nil