Enugu Rangers completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of Nigerian football as they battled back from three goals down to draw 3-3 and then beat Kano Pillars on penalties and end their 35-year wait for the Aiteo Cup on Wednesday.
Three goals in the final 13 minutes from Kelvin Itoya, Chidera Ezeh and Ibrahim Ajani hauled Rangers back into a contest they had no right to be in, cancelling out goals from Rabiu Ali, Ibrahim Alhassan and Nyima Nwagua.
Ali and Jimoh Ismaila missed their spotkicks at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba as Rangers secured their spot in next year’s 2019 CAF Confederation Cup as Nigeria’s sole representatives in the tournament.
It was a second successive comeback victory for the Flying Antelopes – now six-time champions – after a similar semi-final triumph over Nasarawa United.
Ali put Pillars ahead after five minute, his sixth goal of the tournament, profiting from Nwagua’s great work down the left side of attack to finish into the roof of the net.
Flying Eagles midfielder Alhassan doubled the lead directly from a corner kick in the 20th minute, much to the disbelief of a stunned Femi Thomas.
Pillars continued from where they left off after the break, extending their advantage through the hardworking Nwagua three minutes after the restart.
Undeterred by an imminent whitewash, Rangers coach Gbenga Ogunbote made two significant changes, bringing on Itoya for Emeka Madu, and goalkeeper Nana Bonsu for the disappointing Thomas.
It proved to be a masterstroke, as Rangers masterminded a resurgence from the dead in an electrifying final.
Itoya’s 77th-minute 30-yard missile started the comeback, with Ezeh finding the back of the net five minutes later, as Rangers edged closer to an unlikely comeback.
With injuries taking their toll on the Pillars players, Rangers capitalised on the momentum, and deservedly pulled level through Ajani’s header two minutes into added time.
The game went to penalties, and the usually reliable Ali’s miss from the spot – the first of the shootout – was perhaps an indication that it wasn’t going to be Pillars’ day.
Ismaila saw his kick saved by Bonsu, and Isaac Loute stepped up to convert Rangers’ fourth and in a 4-2 triumph.
The win secures the N25million cash prize for the Flying Antelopes.