Sunday's crunch Nigeria Professional Football League encounter between Enyimba and Rivers United lived up to the billing, as the hosts ran out 2-1 winners at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium in Port Harcourt.
First half goals from Bernard Ovoke and Abdoulaye Konate sandwiched Koffi Franco Atchou's header, securing three points for Rivers United in their bid to put distance between themselves and the relegation zone.
With the build-up to the game tainted by the unsporting behaviour of the home side's supporters on the eve of the fixture, there was a palpable buzz in the air, even with the stadium less than a quarter full. In those tense circumstances, Gbenga Ogunbote threw a curveball with his selection, making three changes from the side that lost in midweek to ABS in the Aiteo Cup. Franco came into the side in place of Eric Frimpong, while Kelly Kester replaced Stephen Chukwude.
Both sides signified their intent early on, with Enyimba working the ball forward inside the opening minute. Stanley Dimgba played in Mustapha in the box, but the forward was unable to get a shot away. That partnership would prove one of the few bright sparks for the People's Elephants on the day.
The hosts edged ahead in the 5th minute. Ovoke lined up a free kick, and his curler flew high into the net untouched, with Enyimba goalkeeper Fatau Dauda shoved as he made to go for the ball. The referee however waved all remonstrations away, and let the goal stand.
The home side again got the rub of the green 15 minutes later, flashing a shot across the face of goal at the end of a break that stemmed from an infringement on Franco. Rivers United eventually bagged a second on the half-hour mark. Konate seized on a moment of hesitation in the Enyimba box, and unleashed a swerving, dipping volley which flew past Dauda, giving the Ghana international no chance.
By that point though, it was clear the momentum had already begun to shift, with both Kester and Franco getting good sights of goal. A couple of minutes after the goal though, the deficit really ought to have been halved. Dimgba showed great feet to beat his marker, before cutting inside his marker and chipping the ball across the box to Mustapha, who had peeled away. His header, with the goal at his mercy, bounced agonizingly wide.
Ten minutes before the break, it was 2-1—Franco meeting Ikechukwu Ibenegbu's corner to head home for his first even goal for Enyimba. Ibenegbu then elected to go alone, shooting over from the edge of the area on a 3-0n-1 counter.
If that first half promised an explosive second, then it utterly failed to deliver. The tempo of the game noticeably dropped in the latter half, with a succession of fouls given by the referee hampering the flow of the game. The hosts did however fashion a very good chance late on as Konate guided a header from a Markson Ojobo cross onto the crossbar.
With Akwa United also losing on the road, the result sees Enyimba remain in fourth place behind the Promise Keepers on goal difference with three games left in the season.
ivers United (Bernard Ovoke 5', Abdoulaye Konate 29') 2-1 Enyimba (Koffi Franco Atchou 35')
Enyimba Starting XI: Fatau Dauda, Andrew Abalogu, Isiaka Oladuntoye, Nelson Ogbonnaya, Ikouwem Udoh, Dare Ojo, Kelly Kester, Ikechukwu Ibenegbu, Stanley Dimgba (Stephen Chukwude 79'), Koffi Franco Atchou, Ibrahim Mustapha (Chinonso Okonkwo 73')
Unused substitutes: Izundu Njoku, Solomon Okpako, Samson Gbadebo, Eric Frimpong, Goodluck Onamado
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