Youngster Haggai Katoh produced a man-of-the-match performance on his first NPFL start to give Akwa United a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Heartland in Uyo on Wednesday.
Katoh scored what turned out to be the match winner two minutes after the break to shoot his side to second spot on the league table after a back-and-forth contest with Heartland in the rescheduled Matchday 10 fixture decided at the Nest of Champions.
With the hosts hesitating to hit top gear, their visitors stunned them on 20 minutes when Francis Momoh finished off John Chukwudi’s pass. The Promise Keepers then responded accordingly and returning central midfielder Ifeanyi Ifeanyi curled home a free kick on 32 minutes after sustained pressure by the hosts.
Ifeanyi, making his first appearance of the season following the injury he sustained at the African Nations Championships (CHAN) early in the year was one of seven changes made by Akwa coach Abdu Maikaba to his last league team sheet as he seek to freshen up his squad following continental exertions – Katoh one of them as well.
Heartland went into Wednesday’s game on the back of three successive losses and coach Ramson Madu made three changes to the starting team which suffered their latest reversal in Katsina on Sunday. Attackers John Chukwudi and Francis Momoh were handed starting berths after playing as substitutes on Sunday.
It was both players that combined for the game’s opening goal as the rains threatened on an overconfident Uyo. Chukwudi spurned a badly set offside trap before squaring for Momoh, who arrowed his effort to the roof of the net from close range.
The hosts were stunned, but knew it was all their making after about a quarter of an hour of possession without penetration.
The concession of Momoh’s goal – the first time Akwa’s defence was breached at home this season – stung them into action and they almost replied seconds after but striker Victor Mbaoma who had a woeful day in front of goal headed Aniekeme Asuquo’s incisive left flank cross over.
Akwa’s next chance also came from the left flank after full back Kodjovi Dadzie combined with Aniekeme before crossing for Mbaoma who inexplicably kicked the air with the post gaping.
Akwa then got their equaliser after Aniekeme was fouled 25 yards out and Ifeanyi duly obliged, curling over the wall and beyond Japhet Opubo for his first ever league goal for Akwa United.
Heartland coach Madu made a dramatic change with ten minutes left in the first half, replacing goalscorer Momoh with Abiodun Thompson. They almost punished their hosts’ profligacy in stoppage time after Nnamdi Egbujor spearheaded a counterattack but Thompson’s free kick was headed over by Chukwudi.
The rains came down in first half stoppage time and waxed stronger at the start of the second, leaving the playing surface drenched and slippery.
In spite of the conditions, United got the much needed tonic to start the half two minutes after the break. Mbaoma’s flick was destined to be cleared by Hearland centre-back Uche Odeh but he made a mess of what should have been an easy clearance, mis-kicking his attempt towards Katoh who gratefully hammered home from three yards out.
Heartland’s hopes of an unlikely comeback evaporated after the hour mark when inspired attacker Egbujor received two bookings in four minutes. First, a needless tackle from behind on Kelly Kester on 60 minutes before falling inside the box three minutes later, apparently asking for a spot kick. Referee Habibu Ghali booked him for simulation which sent him for early shower.
Another of Akwa’s youngsters Etboy Akpan replaced Cyril Olisema on the hour mark and thrilled fans with his skills for the final half an hour although he was wasteful in front of goal alongside Mbaoma who shockingly shot wide from close range after a counter attack eight minutes from time.
Despite being a man down, Heartland continued to ask questions especially on the break and Mohammed Afeez almost pulled them level two minutes from time; his header to Onyebuchi Onyeachefula’s cross going inches over Ojo Olorunleke’s cross bar.
Akwa United moved to second spot on the table with 22 points, one behind leaders Lobi Stars despite having two games in hand (both away against Katsina United and Rivers United). Heartland remain neck deep in relegation trouble as they sit third from bottom with 13 points from as many games.
Akwa United: 30. Ojo Olorunleke 4. Etim Mathew 31. Kodjovi Dadzie 12. Kelly Kester 15. Emmanuel Ariwachukwu 35. Godspower Igudia 26. Cyril Olisema (Etboy Akpan 60′) 5. Haggai Katoh (Michael Ibe 84′) 17. Victor Mbaoma 24. Ifeanyi Ifeanyi (Christopher Lolo 72′) 33. Aniekeme Asuquo
Unused Subs: 22. Emmanuel Iwu 2. Ubong Idio 3. Chigozie Chilekwu 10. Christian Pyagbara
BOOKED: Godspower Igudia 39′
GOALS: Ifeanyi Ifeanyi 32′, Haggai Katoh 47′
Heartland: 2. Opubo Japhet 31. Onyebuchi Onyechefula 3. Chukwudi Oparaugo 26. Julius Ubido (Ahiaeke Odinaka 81′) 14. Kenneth Ikwugbado 23. Uche Odeh 5. Fuad Ekelojuoti 27. Nnamdi Egbujor 16. John Chukwudi (Mohammed Afeez 49′) 21. Odera Onyiri 22. Francis Momoh (Abiodun Thompson 35′)
Unused Subs: 1. Osayi Ituah 6. Ismail Jimoh 17. Chimakpa Onwuabuchi
BOOKED: Onyebuchi Onyechefula 55′ Nnamdi Egbujor 60, 63
DISMISSAL: Nnamdi Egbujor 63′
Referee: Habibu Ghali (Kano)
Man of the Match: Haggai Katoh