Imphal: On another day, at another place, it would have been a battle of unequals, not much to worry about. However, in Imphal, and with the way they are playing, Manipur look as good to reach the final of the 58th national football championship for the Santosh Trophy as Goa, who have won this trophy two times and have been in the final eight times.
On Saturday, in the second semi-final, Manipur are expected to go all the way. As coach Ch. Shantikumar Singh put it: “This is our chance to show the country what talent we have. This is the chance for our players to showcase our strength. Such opportunities do not come often, we must make the best of this.”
To that extent he is right. Not every time does it happen that such a league of stars get together under one state-umbrella. To that extent, the AIFF ruling of player-to-state has also helped this former north-eastern kingdom. A look at the roster of the team tells the story — Ratan Singh, Sanaton Singh, L. James Singh, M. Bijen Singh, P. Rennedy Singh, Bungo Singh, Samson Singh.
Samson arrived Thursday and Bungo was expected later in the day. With both around, Manipur will go for a 3-5-2 formation, while a 4-4-2 is set for another occasion.
Goa coach Norbert Gonsalves, a player not too many years back, feels that the two match suspension of Alvito D’Cunha will surely hurt the fortunes of his team, “but the team has settled down without him, and we expect to do our best,” was what he felt.
There is no doubt in Gonsalves’ mind that he will have to “slow down the speedy Manipuris” if he has to get anywhere near the final. “That is a challenge, and I am sure we will able to use the counter-attacks to effect,” said the coach. “You take them in their own backyard and keep them busy, while we work on the other routes.”
While this may sound pretty outrageous a comment from another coach, the depth of talent available to Gonsalves could well justify his wanting to what he wants.
The Goan half-line has traditionally been a strong point and this team is no different. Players like Denis Cabral (overlapping into attack), Jules Alberto, Savio Pereira and the like have the ability to hold their own in any situation.
In their last match (quarter final versus Karnataka) Goa could have won by a bigger margin, but the usual ‘missed chances’ story restricted them. Goa eventually won 2-1.
Manipur, on the other hand, came up from the preliminaries, where they thrashed Himachal Pradesh 8-0, whipped Pondicherry 9-0 (the widest margin in this meet so far) and then beat Orissa 4-1 and drew with Tamil Nadu 2-2 in the quarter finals. One can easily gauge the confidence levels of the teams from this route, but Goa have a treasury of experience to dip into.
However, tomorrow is a day of expectations for the hosts. “As hosts, we have everything going for us,” said the Manipur coach. “We have a great backing, a solid team (where he will actually have a problem of plenty), and high morale. We should be able to take out the Goans tomorrow, but it will all depend on that day.”
One word of caution for Shantikumar Singh, though: coach Gonsalves very well understands the strength of the Manipuris. The fight is on.
Though the stadium was empty Friday for the first semi-final, one is sure to find the stands choc-a-bloc for tomorrow’s blockbuster.