NPFL: Heartland Swap Relegation Destiny With Visiting El-Kanemi Warriors
Two goals, one in each half were all Heartland FC needed to condemn El-Kanemi Warriors to relegation in a 2-0 defeat at the Okigwe Stadium on the final day of the 2018/19 Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) regular season.
Chukwudi Nwaodu and Uche Oguchi (from the penalty spot) scored for the Naze Millionaires who dug deep on the final day to trade relegation places with their visitors in what is certainly an anti-climax to what promised to be a great season for the Warriors.
With Delta Force held 0-0 by Plateau United in Asaba, Heartland’s victory not only guaranteed safety for the Owerri club but brought down Mohammed BabaGanaru’s men who were actually favourites to finish in the top-three just five matchdays ago.
Given both teams’ position on the log before Sunday’s decider, it became a winner-takes-all encounter between the two traditional clubs on the resplendent turf of the new stadium situated at a very vintage passer-by gaze along the Shukuk-ceded Umuahia-Enugu expressway.
It was not a game for the faint-hearted so both coaches called on experienced campaigners to help them out. Chijioke ‘Arugo Monkey’ Ejiogu, famous for his heroics in 1999 FA Cup was placed in goal for Heartland with experienced centre-back Uche Michael and former Lobi Stars man Felix Osia recalled for this game.
El-Kanemi meanwhile had Isiaka Olawale, a midfielder with over 15 years of participation in Nigeria’s top flight starting in midfield alongside former league winner Abdulrazak Aliyu while Canada 2007 winger Bello Musa Kofarmata, a former Heartland player too, was included in the starting line-up.
The tension was quite easy to feel at the outset with tentative decisions made by both set of players. While that lasted though, Oguchi’s set-piece deliveries was bound to be the game changer for the hosts.
Former Enyimba striker Chinonso Okonkwo should indeed have given Heartland the lead in the 11th minute but his header from an unmarked position inside the box to Oguchi’s corner flew high and wide of Itodo Akor’s right hand post.
The hosts however got their breakthrough through the same route in the 23rd minute. Another Oguchi out-swinging corner was this time knocked down by Okonkwo with Nwaodu at the right place and at the right time to poke home from three yards out.
With the visitors now practically confined to their half of the pitch, Heartland continued to probe in search of an insurance goal – no pun intended. Oguchi was a veritable outlet for Ramson Madu’s men with his set-piece deliveries and another of such was headed over at the far post by Uche Michael.
The second half started on a rather dour note as the afternoon sunshine gave way to a cloudy weather, giving hints of an imminent downpour that would later last for over three hours from stoppage time.
Heartland went close to getting their second on the hour mark but Nnamdi Egbujor had a chipped effort rolling wide after impressive play by right-back Godwin Emmanuel.
El-Kanemi produced some moments of spark midway through the second half with Kofarmata forcing Ejiogu to a save at his near post while Olawale’s long range daisy cutter was timely blocked by Joshua Akhabue. They would then suffer a blow in the 68th minute when centre back Jamiu Alimi limped off.
The hosts should have indeed scored the long sought second in the 73rd minute after an expertly executed training-ground routine. From a free kick at the edge of the box, Oguchi passed wide for left back Felix Osia who crossed inside the box for Dikoo Popnen. Popnen’s header was saved by Akor but the rebound fell invitingly for Egbujor who somehow hit his effort over from 3 yards when it was even easier to score.
They were not to be denied in the 82nd minute though when Oguchi converted a spot kick given by referee Joseph Ogabor after Akor was adjudged to have upended Heartland substitute Francis Eze.
No sooner had Oguchi scored than the heavens opened to give heavy rainfall which not only eased off Heartland’s relegation fears but also washed away El-Kanemi’s top flight status at least for another season. The team touted by many to go all the way will play in the ironically named Most Important League in the country (Nigeria National League), next term.