Osita Chikere’s first half goal was enough to secure Rivers United a lone goal victory over champions Plateau United in a tempestuous Matchday 22 clash in Port Harcourt on Sunday.
Chikere headed home Bernard Ovoke’s free kick in the 16th minute in what turned out to be the match winner in a game which saw one player from both sides sent off late in the first half.
Chigozie Ihunda, making a rare start for Rivers United was dismissed alongside Plateau’s Emma Igho James after a prolonged altercation between players of both sides in first half stoppage time.
Plateau United were dealt a huge blow just before kickoff when star striker Tosin Omoyele who was held back by the team from his international duties with Nigeria’s Super Eagles B was refused permission to feature with United by national team selectors. Plateau coach Kennedy Boboye drafted in Ibeh Johnson for the striker.
The hosts made five changes to the side which drew at El-Kanemi in midweek. Goalkeeper Emeka Nwabulu retained his place but captain Festus Austine replaced Gabriel Olalekan to partner with Samson Gbadebo while Ali Chiwedu was at left back in place of Zoumana Doumbia.
Stanley Eguma’s United are without a win in their last three games against Plateau and they showed real intent towards ending that run early in the game. Bernard Ovoke who is now enjoying a fresh run-in with the team got his head onto an Emeka Ogbugh’s cross but it flashed just wide in the fifth minute.
They continued to dominate proceedings early on and playmaker Salefu Ochowechi twice came close to opening the scores; flashing a long range effort wide before shooting straight at former Sharks goalkeeper Okiemute Odah in the Plateau goal.
Rivers United however got a deserved lead in the 16th minute through striker Chikere who reacted fastest to Ovoke’s in-swinging free kick, redirecting it with his head and beyond a completely wrong-footed Odah.
The hosts were then dealt a blow shortly after their goal when winger Emeka Ogbugh came off injured, Malachy Ohawume taking his place.
Plateau United tried to conjure some things up in the bright sunshine in Port Harcourt and in-form Reuben Bala went close to leveling matters midway through the first half but his effort from a Benjamin Turba free kick sailed wide.
The champions were then dealt a blow when experienced midfielder Turba succumbed to injury just before half time, Emma James taking his place. James’ time on the pitch was however going to be one of the shortest in the history of the Nigeria Professional Football League as he was dismissed four minutes into stoppage time.
The versatile player was sent off alongside Ihunda after an Emeka Atuloma tackle on Reuben Bala caused a melee among the players. Referee Jonathan Zakaria opting to send both players off for early bath thereafter.
Rivers United almost doubled their advantage early in the second half but Odah was well placed to keep out another Chikere header in the 49th minute. Youngster Seth Mayi also went close for the visitors six minutes later but his effort flashed agonizingly wide.
Plateau United’s best chance of the game came in the 66th minute but Nwabulu produced a superb save to tip away Elijah Ogene’s connecting header to Hamzat Owolabi’s corner kick.
What was left in the game was speculative long range efforts from both sides as they wearied down with ten men on either side as the evening approached at the Yakubu Gowon Stadium.
The loss was enough to knock Plateau United to third on the log after Kano Pillars’ point at Nasarawa United. The hosts climbed to sixth position on the log with 32 points, eight behind leaders Lobi Stars.