It was expected to be a definite three points against Heartland of Owerri, the lowest-ranked team in the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) so far, but it turned into a daunting experience that almost ended in a loss, but for Jonathan Alukwu’s 100th-minute equaliser.
The Mobolaji Johnson Arena was agog with fans of Sporting Lagos, and chants of ‘Go, Sporting, go’ were heard as the newly promoted side hosted their opponents on Sunday evening in Lagos. Confidence was high because Sporting Lagos had demolished four-time NPFL champions Kano Pillars 3-0 in their last home match.
It was like a party atmosphere with drinks, snacks, and food aplenty.
The fans were active in cheering on the Sporting Lagos players as they commenced pre-match drills. But the chants, the cheers, and the moral support started ebbing when the first half ended 0-0. And when Chinedu Ike scored for Heartland in the 75th minute, the fans did not know where to turn. Apprehension and anxiety turned into anger as the fans started heckling Sporting Lagos players.
Sporting Lagos General Manager, Godwin Enekhena, eventually appeased some of the supporters to stay calm when they became infuriated by the antics of Heartland goalkeeper Chisom Chiaha.
— Oluwaferanmi Omoniyi (@Preacherpen) November 19, 2023
Some highlights of the match revolved around Jonathan Alukwu and Junior Lokosa’s missed goal attempts and Rivio Anyemere’s early substitution to injury.
Alukwu’s missed chances
Traditionally, Sporting Lagos starts in a frenetic manner, trying to score an early goal. They followed the same script on Sunday. Jonathan Alukwu had the first goal-scoring opportunity in the third minute, but his anxiety prevented him from finding the target. He was hoping to follow Junior Lokosa’s example by scoring against his former club. Alukwu had other chances in the sixth and 15th minutes but failed to capitalise.
Those missed goal-scoring attempts put the hosts under pressure, with Alukwu telling PREMIUM TIMES after the game how he was under pressure.
“I was anxious to score. I believe that was the main reason I didn’t get the best goal as of then because I needed to have this composure around the goal area,” he said.
The forward eventually scored the equaliser in the 100th minute. He said the second half was rough for his team because of the style of play and antics of their visitors.
“Yeah, because of the way they play, they always fall on the ground, and it really affected us because we are known for active football.”
Heartland wanted a point in that game
Heartland’s game plan was to stay compact and not concede cheap goals.
After they got the goal, they went to a man-to-man marking tactic all over the pitch, leaving just Onyekachi Okafor upfront.
Coach Christian Obi would have had Chisom Chiaha to thank if the scoreline had ended 1-0 in Heartland’s favour. The goalkeeper was active throughout the game aside from his frivolities, which included the time-wasting tactics he showed toward the end of the game.
However, one thing that will hurt Heartland about the game as they return to Owerri was the free header by Chinedu Ike, which hit the crossbar in the 32nd minute. This would have given Heartland a precious first-half goal.
Orji had a decent game
Unfortunately for Chisom Orji, his return to the starting lineup after injury ended on a sour note as he caused the own goal that gifted Heartland their point. Aside from the error, the defender was decent in the game considering he just returned to the team.
Offor’s optimism and message to NPFL fans
But while a point didn’t meet the fans’ expectations, Paul Ofor, Sporting Lagos’ coach, gave credit to his players for fighting back.
He described the draw as a fair result and urged the fans to be ready for such incidents.
“The thing we are all clamouring for is a league where people can go away and pick points, and when the team comes to your home and picks points, everybody sees it as a negative thing. That means we are not ready.
“We want to create a free and fair league where everybody can go everywhere, anywhere, and pick points. And they came here today and picked a point.
“This is the league everybody is asking for, but at the end of the day, when it happens in your home, you turn against the players, you turn against the coaches, then we’re not ready for the growth we are asking for.”
He said it would have been a “disaster” if his team failed to equalise. Now, the focus is on the trip to Sunshine Stars, and Ofor is determined to get positive results.
Can Sporting still win the league?
Alukwu also added that the focus of the team is to win the league and for him to become the highest goal scorer.
The forward has scored five times in nine appearances for Sporting this season. Four of those goals were in three consecutive games. The Lagos-based club is currently in the eighth position with 12 points.
To win the league, Sporting Lagos need to work on their lack of concentration in the second half. On average, to win the NPFL, they have to accrue at least 71 points, which is the equivalent of 19 wins, five defeats, and 14 draws.
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