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Manipur make history

Imphal: Manipur made history at the Khuman Lampak main stadium here on Sunday. Their very own history. Beating a formidable Goa 4-3 via the tie-breaker, that too playing with ten men for 101 minutes, the hosts moved to their first-ever final of a national football championship in this 58th edition of the LG Santosh Trophy.

When regulation time and even extra time remained barren, penalty shootouts broke the deadlock.

In 1999 in Ooty, Manipur had reached a high by making it to the quarter finals of the championship, but then were landed with Services and Bengal in the pool. They took care of Services all right, but Bengal proved too strong. Now they have a chance to make it to the top.

A pretty long roller-coaster ride it was before one got to see the second semi-final of the meet. An off-side goal, crowd trouble, match abandonment, special security arrangements... The football match itself was poor, sans direction, sans strategy, sans skill. There was a great deal of running about, mostly aimless, and there was hurried damage control when attacks reached defensive thirds on either side. It was dull, to be polite.

Standing out amid this mediocrity was Manipur goalkeer Noren Singh, declared the Most Valuable Player of the match.

The enthusiasm, amid all this, was evident, though. The crowd was somewhat thinner, what with many having thrown away Friday’s ticket stubs, and the security personnel were thicker in presence. They were even issued the good old lathis, probably a first for Manipur Police, too used to their Self-Loading Rifles and Sten Guns. There were water bottles, but no coffee, no smoking, not a lot of things. Off field was fine. Onfield lacked the charisma for which all the off-field activity was.

On Saturday, there was a call for localisation by the people, saying stars were spoiling the natural ability of the Manipur team. Could be a reaction to that, but Bungo Singh was among the first XI, Samson Singh was out of the reserves too. Not that this improved the quality of play. There was too much disjointed action, too many mispasses and virtually no midfield.

Ditto for Goa. They had managed to bring back Alvito D’Cunha early, but put him way up as attacker, when he has made the position of withdrawn forward veritably his own. He makes the game. The Goan midfield looked arid, devoid of any creativity. Alvito was bulldozing the defence, not waiting for the right feed, probably knowing too well there wouldn’t be any.

In the 16th minute he and Sukhdev Arvade played a one-two at the Manipur goalmouth and a fast, strong Alvito grounder saw Manipur goalkeeper Noren make the first of his many fine saves.

Then came the setback for Manipur. In the 19th minute, Uttam Singh was involved in a tussle with Sukhdev, and the elbow was used. Uttam had, a minute earlier, picked up a booking through a bit of rough play. Referee S. Suresh of Tamil Nadu did not hesitate to flash the yellow card for the second time, obviously followed by the red. The crowd, sporting that it is, accepted this with grace.

The match supervisors were probably over-reacting after Saturday’s fiasco. Bookings were handed out liberally, and the linesmen were marking off-side to any move on the fringe of a doubt. That did rob the match of a number of legitimate moves. That good refereeing is different from strict refereeing is probably not too apparent with the AIFF mandarins.

Manipur were not really feeling their manpower shortage, probably because of the mess the Goan midfield was in. There was no plan to make the best of the situation, and, in fact, late into the first half Manipur were the dominant team.

Of course, Bijen Singh missed sitters. And James Singh looked leaden-footed, and efforts by rookie Nilakumar Singh were lost amid unreceptive feet.

Coming in after the dreary first half, Samir Naik of Goa sauntered up the right and lobbed to the goalmouth. Alvito’s shot was saved again, by Noren. For the Goans, Noren was a frustration. They toiled in the disarray, and whatever they could finally manage to carry to the rival goalmouth got lost in Noren’s grip, if they were not way off the target. That was after the severe midfield crisis virtually dried up the frontline feed.

The story at the other end was also of frustration, though more through misses. Bijen isn’t the player Calcutta once loved to cheer. James isn’t the ‘James Bond’ that coach Syed Nayeemuddin had called, and Rennedy Singh seems lost in his midfield duties, unable to create.

It looked more and more like a wooden spooners’ semi-final.

The extra time and then the penalties could almost be forecast. The penalty shootouts proved to be the only interesting point in the entire afternoon’s exercise.

When Jules Dias Alberto’s shot was brilliantly saved by Noren, the writing on the wall was clear. Bungo Singh put his shot into orbit, but Climax Lawrence, the man of Saturday’s dispute, drove in the final nail in the Goan coffin, shooting over. Manipur 4, Goa 3.

The euphoria, the tears, the kisses and the lap of honour were all in order.

TEAMS

MANIPUR: Noren Singh, Uttam Singh, Manitombi Singh (Uttam Kumar Singh, 113), Ratan Singh, Shyamananda Singh, Sanaton Singh, James Singh, Tomba Singh, Rennedy Singh, Nilakumar Singh (Tiken Singh, 46; Bungo Singh, 98), Bijen Singh.

GOA: Kalyan Chowbey, Samir Naik, Robert Fernandes, Covan Lawrence, Melwyn Rodrigues, Denis Cabral, Menini Fernandes, Jules Dias Alberto, Savio Pereira (Johnny D’Cruz, 65; Bibiano Fernandez, 117), Alvito D’Cunha, Sukhdev Arvade (Climax Lawrence, 46).

Referee: S. Suresh (Tamil Nadu)

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