By Carol V. Utulu/Asaba
Rangers International FC of Enugu on Wednesday in Asaba stunned Kano Pillars in a dramatic comeback from three goals down to win the 2018 Aiteo Cup on penalties.
The News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reports that the match which was played at the 25,000 capacity Stephen Keshi Stadium had ended 3-3 at regulation time, after Rangers fought gallantly from three goals deficit to level up the game.
Pillars, backed by over 400 travelling supporters dominated the first half of the game banged in three goals.
The first goal came in the 5th minute of play when Pillars old warhorse, Rabiu Ali, found space between two Rangers defenders to slot in from close range.
The early goal seemed to spur Pillars into action, as they took absolute control of the midfield, dictating the play as Rangers defenders laboured helplessly to curtail the rampaging Pillars attackers, led by Junior Lokosa.
The dominant Pillars got their second goal of the game in the 20th minute of the second half when a corner kick by Alhassan Ibrahim was parried into goal by Rangers first choice goalkeeper, Femi Thomas.
Pillars got their third goal in the 47th minute when striker Nwagua Nymar took advantage of a mixup in Rangers defence to slot home from close range.
Rangers players, however, bounced back, when midfielder Kelvin Itoya powered home a stunner from outside the 18 yard box, in what can be arguably described as the best goal of the game.
Not done yet, Rangers went on the rampage, after two Pillars players got injured in a space of 15 minutes and were stretchered out of the field of play and taken in an ambulance to the hospital.
The Flying Antelopes got their second goal of the night in the 82nd minute, when midfielder Chidera Ezeh scored after a free-flowing counter attack.
The turning point of the night came in the 92nd minute of extra time, when Ajani Ibrahim sent the entire stadium into frenzy with a clinical finish after he beat a helpless Pillars defender to level the game at 3-3.
The game became a physical combat as tempers flared among the players of the two teams, but referee, Adebimpe Quadri cooled tempers.
The game went directly into penalties, and in the ensuing shootout, Pillars duo of Rabiu Ali and Jimoh Ismaila lost their penalties, while Rangers scored all its five penalties, ending the 5-3 to lift the trophy.
Rangers coach, Gbenga Ogunbote said that determination and Gov. Ugwuanyi’s presence saw the team through.
“Frankly speaking, we made a huge mistake in our game tonight. We gave away possessions and that gave our opponents so many chances. But as a coach, I take blame whether we won or lost.
“However, during the first half break, we told ourselves the truth, we talked to one another and realised we could still make it. We believe in our determination to fight back and it paid off.
“But most importantly, the presence of our governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, who came to our dressing room to have a talk with the players made a huge difference too. He is a father figure to us.
“The governor charged the players not to lose hope in the remaining 45 minutes of play. He assured them of his support and told them to give their best in the remaining half of the game,” Ogunbote said.
On his first choice goalkeeper, Femi Thomas, who was abruptly replaced after he conceded three goals, Ogunbote said he could not single out the keeper for blame, rather he attributed his performance to ill-luck.
“Femi had a bad day today, and that is how it is in football. I can’t say he is not a good goalkeeper because he conceded three goals. Football is like that, some days are just so disappointing,” Ogunbote added.
Also, Rangers attacking midfielder, Ugonna Uzochukwu, told NAN that sheer determination saw his team come back into the game after trailing by three goals.
“We almost lost hope in today’s game. But during the half time break, we told ourselves that we can do it. We knew we committed a lots of mistakes.
“However, we were determined to put in our best in the remaining part of the game and that was why you saw a different Enugu Rangers with a different character in the second half,” Uzochukwu said.
Rangers went back to Enugu with N25million, while Kano Pillars got N10million.
NAN reports that two state governors, Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta and his counterpart from Enugu, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, as well as the deputy governors of Kano and Edo states watched the match.