Super Eagles goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa made a crucial penalty stop in the first half to set Heartland on the road to a famous 2-0 win away to reigning Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) champions Enyimba in Aba on Wednesday evening.
Ezenwa denied his former teammate Stanley Dimgba from the spot in the 26th minute and his Heartland teammates built on from there, finding the back of the net through Sadiq Abubakar and Chukwuemeka Obioma in the 30th and 45th minute.
Enyimba did all they could in the second half to claw their way back into the MatchDay 15 game but they met a brick wall in Ezenwa who made further crucial saves in the second half to earn his second clean sheet in a row against teams from Abia state.
Both sides retained the core of players that secured wins in different competitions on Sunday. Enyimba interim head coach Fatai Osho started eight of his starters against Algerian side Paradou on Sunday with the duo of Daniel Darkwah and Dayo Ojo missing out due to injury.
Heartland coach Fidelis Ilechukwu also kept faith with his team that defeated Abia Warriors for the first time in the NPFL on Sunday while also giving a debut to midfielder Lengkat Isah who was signed from Jigawa Golden Stars last week.
Heartland had the first sniff of goal in this Oriental Derby. In the 6th minute, in-form Abiodun Thompson latched onto a huge clearance by Ayooluwa Adetola but his effort came off the foot of the post with Enyimba goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali already beaten.
A key moment of the game would come midway through the half when Enyimba’s intricate play was rewarded with a penalty after Heartland defender Jide Williams tripped Reuben Bala inside the penalty box.
Stanley Dimgba, scorer of a hattrick for Enyimba in the CAF Confederation Cup on Sunday stepped up to take the spot-kick but Ezenwa guessed right, diving to his left to keep out Dimgba’s effort.
The Naze Millionaires continued to be second best in the midfield areas but in a move similar to Thompson’s first chance of the game, they went in front on the half-hour mark.
Thompson this time fed winger Abubakar who dummied Enyimba’s left-back on the day, Emma James, before firing high beyond Nwabali into the roof of the net. The hosts were stunned.
Enyimba continued to dominate possession with chances opening up at both ends of the pitch but a combination of Ezenwa’s brilliance and profligacy on the part of the People’s Elephant kept the scoreline 0-1 in Heartland’s favour.
When it looked as though the half would end that way, Heartland had other ideas. In the first minute of stoppage time, Obioma who is on-loan from Enyimba to Heartland embarked on a solo run of his own, taking three Enyimba players in his stride before shooting beyond Nwabali who got a hand to the ball but could not keep it out.
Heartland tactically fell into two low blocks in the second period to frustrate their hosts who badly needed a goal to come back into the game.
When Enyimba managed to breach their backline in rare occasions, Ezenwa was there to the rescue, especially a downward header by Martins Usule and a long-range piledriver by Cyril Olisema.
Ilechukwu’s side ultimately held on for their third win in last four league games to extend their unbeaten sequence over Enyimba to six matches.
Another Oriental Derby awaits Enyimba on Sunday in Nnewi while Heartland will return home to host Katsina United.