Aiteo Cup Final: Five hot talking points

Enugu Rangers won the 2018 Aiteo Cup 4-3 on penalties. LMC Media

Enugu Rangers broke a 35-year Aiteo Cup jinx to secure a sixth title, with their latest conquest coming at the expense of Kano Pillars at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, in Asaba on Wednesday.

However, the Flying Antelopes had to achieve victory the hard way, fighting back from a three-goal deficit to draw 3-3 in regulation time before edging the penalty shootout 4-2.

In this feature, KweséESPN takes a look at five hot topics to emerge from an exciting Aiteo Cup final, which produced one of the greatest comebacks in Nigeria football history.

Goalkeeping Howlers: A major feature of the 2018 Aiteo Cup final was some poor goalkeeping, and particularly the decision-making from the duo of David Obiazo and Femi Thomas.

As early as the second minute, Enugu Rangers could have taken the lead, when Godwin Zaki got behind the Kano Pillars defence, but with no imminent danger in sight, Obiazo inexplicably raced off his line, failed to put any pressure on the striker and was only let off after Zaki's shot failed to hit target.

That was only the beginning of what was to be a long day in the office for the goalkeepers.

Ibrahim Alhassan brilliantly curled a direct corner kick into the back of the net, aided by Thomas' fumble to double Pillars' lead.

Nyima Nwagua pressed Okey Odita into an error in the build-up to Pillars' third goal.

The forward was faced with just Thomas to beat, but surprisingly, the experienced goalkeeper didn't move a nerve as Nwagua shot past him, much to the irritation of a visibly angry Gbenga Ogunbote, who instantly summoned Nana Bonsu from the bench.

Remarkably, Rangers hauled their way back into the contest thanks largely to some questionable positioning from Obiazo, who should have dealt better with Kelvin Itoya's 30-yard strike and Chidera Ezeh's effort from the edge of the box.

Ogunbote earns his pay: Enugu Rangers had earned comeback quarter-final and semi-final victories against Akwa United and Nasarawa United, but they certainly reserved the biggest showpiece for the final.

The Flying Antelopes were down and out, trailing Sai Masu Gida by three goals after 48 minutes, but Gbenga Ogunbote had other ideas.

The coach brought on the trio of Kelvin Itoya, Nana Bonsu and Ibrahim Ajani, subbing out Emeka Madu, Femi Thomas and Ugochukwu Ugwuoke.

The changes worked, as Itoya started the fight-back with 13 minutes left to play, Ajani completed the comeback in added time and Bonsu crucially saved Jimoh Ismaila's effort in the shootout.

Pillars' meltdown continues: Perhaps signs of a crackdown in Kano Pillars had began to appear a month ago, but the technical crew failed to arrest the looming disaster which led to an embarrassing final meltdown.

In the second group-stage game against Abia Warriors, Pillars lost 2-1, despite taking a first-half lead, an outcome which left them depending on their final match for progression.

Things got even more interesting in the semi-final, a North-West derby against Katsina United at the Agege Stadium. Pillars threw away a comfortable two-goal lead, were pegged back 2-2, and had to rely on penalties to reach the final.

An inability to shutdown a game when enjoying a seemingly unassailable lead ultimately cost Sai Masu Gida on the biggest stage, a catastrophic outcome which could lead to Ibrahim Musa losing his job.

Penalties decide final, yet again: For a sixth Aiteo Cup final in the last decade, the winners emerged after a pulsating penalty shootout.

The 2018 final never should have gone down to the wire after Kano Pillars raced into a healthy three-goal lead, and looked to equal Julius Berger FC's 3-0 result against Yobe Stars.

It would have been the biggest winning margin in a final since 2002.

However, the final was to be decided on penalties for a third successive time, extending a now familiar tradition.

Mother luck smiled on Enugu Rangers, who incidentally lost on their last final appearance against Dolphins on penalties in 2007, as they converted all four attempts in the shootout.

Their success led to deafening chants of "Holy! Holy!! Holy!!!" from the supporters.

Pillars' loss is Rangers' gain: Pillars' capitulation means they've failed to make a return to continental competition following a four-year absence.

Rangers, by contrast, have secured their second major title in two years after ending their 32-year wait for an NPFL title in 2016, and will also feature in the 2018-19 Caf Confederation Cup.

While Pillars will look back and regret a golden opportunity for a first title in four years, Rangers can confidently claim they are on their way to reclaiming their place as heavyweights in Nigeria football after enduring the agony of more than three decades without a cup win.