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Akwa United deserved cup success after NPFL disappointment

10:26 PM IST 17/10/17
Federation Cup 2017 Final - Akwa United vs Niger Tornadoes
The Promise Keepers didn’t end their league campaign as they wished, but made up for it by lifting the Aiteo Cup

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Akwa United won the 2017 Federation Cup by defeating Niger Tornadoes 3-2 on penalties after the game ended goalless in normal time at the Agege Stadium on Sunday evening. It was more than they deserved after a disappointing conclusion to their NPFL campaign.

Neither team was able to create anything meaningful for the entire duration of the game, and when it came to spot kicks to decide the winner, Gabriel Okechukwu sealed the deal to give the Promise Keepers their second cup title in two years, having won it in 2015.

Akwa United are seen as one of the emerging forces in the Nigeria Professional Football League, and having finished in 14th place in 2016, the Uyo-based outfit went for experienced coach Abdu Maikaba, who kept Wikki Tourists in the hunt for the title that season, and ultimately led them to third place.

Maikaba came with a possession-based philosophy which didn’t initially yield results, but eventually did with a core of recruits in Ifeanyi Ifeanyi, Ibrahim Alhassan, Musa Newman and Christian Pyagbara all playing key roles.

When the battle for first and second placed looked to be between Plateau United and Mountain of Fire FC, Akwa United looked poised to finish third, which meant they would seal the final continental berth in the NPFL.

However, a 1-0 defeat at Shooting Stars on the penultimate weekend meant Enyimba – who drew at Rangers – took over third place. Both sides won their respective final games but it did nothing to swap places.

Fourth place was still an achievement for Akwa United as it was their highest league finish since their creation in 1996.

However, the disappointment of seeing continental football slip from their grasp in the league meant they had to try their luck in the Federation Cup if they were to keep their hopes of reaching Caf competitins alive.

It was never going to be easy with all 20 NPFL teams competing from the round of 64 along with other clubs from the lower divisions who had the potential to be giant killers.

The 2015 Federation Cup champions advanced past Yobe Desert Stars, Shooting Stars, Katsina United Feeders and Sunshine Stars en route the final, and they did it all in dominating fashion, averaging three goals per game.

Akwa United were thus favourites heading into the final in Lagos, but they failed to deliver what was expected of them and rather took a cautious approach, leaving them with very little in the way of goalscoring opportunities. Niger Tornadoes made some good breaks on the counter, but they failed to yield anything positive.

Penalty shootouts don’t often reflect the true nature of a game, but the Promise Keepers prevailed after the Ikon Allah wasted two good opportunities out of four misses.

It was hardly that Maikaba’s side were more efficient in their spot kicks, as they wasted three, but the day belonged to them and they can now smile at booking the second slot in the Caf Confederation Cup next season.

Two cup titles in two years is a massive achievement for Akwa United.

There is no indication that they will be a shining light on the continent next term, as Nigerian clubs generally falter on the bigger stage.

However, with the impressive structure Maikaba is building in Uyo, it will be fascinating to see whether the Akwa Ibom State capital club can thrive in Caf competition next term.