| Mahindra United’s Raphael Akakpo (right) who scored two goals and James Singh, who set up both, at Salt Lake Stadium on Wednesday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta: The Tata Federation Cup semi-final between Mahindra United and Vasco on Wednesday turned out to be a tale of two sessions. Mahindra toyed with their rivals for a greater part of the first half, and flirted with danger for most of the second. In the end, they emerged 2-1 winners.
The Mumbai outfit’s third entry to the final of this prestigious tournament — their first since 1993 — set them up for a clash against Mohammedan Sporting on Saturday. Going by what was on show, the second half notwithstanding, it has to be said Mohammedan Sporting have a job on their hands.
Richer in talent and certainly fresh as compared to Vasco — who had just a day to rest after Monday’s hard-earned win over East Bengal — Mahindra painted the Goans red in the first 30 minutes. Raphael Akakpo had put them 2-0 ahead by the 25th minute and Mahindra could have well and truly buried Vasco before that.
They chose to relax somewhat, assuming the two-goal cushion will be good for a short stupor. Limited in talent, but not in commitment, Vasco started the second half at good pace and K. Ajayan made full use of a defensive lapse to reduce the margin 19 minutes after resumption.
The verve and vigour seen in the first half had disappeared and for most of the second, Mahindra’s activities were restricted to defusing potential threat near the middle of the pitch — still holding good with the weather gods sparing a sharp shower. Twice Vasco came close to the equaliser, but a bad shot and a good save kept the balance tilted in favour of Mahindra.
The start hardly indicated it would be a close finish. Vasco missed a snatcher in midfield and with ample supply from their middle third, Mahindra attacked down both flanks and the centre, with six-seven players.
James Singh was slippery, beating the defenders in sprints. Operating from just behind, S. Venkatesh made full use of the freedom he was allowed, and was everywhere in the rival defence. Mahindra came within a shot of scoring at least thrice in the first ten minutes.
In the very third minute, Venkatesh was there on the left, released expertly by Rauf Khan, but Akakpo failed to connect the resultant low centre. Minutes later, Rauf found James inside the box and despite outpacing his markers to the ball, the latter failed to turn and shoot.
James made amends in the 17th minute, with a corner from the right. It was a low and crafty right-footer, struck with the outside of the boot, that was curling towards the goal at an awkward height before Akakpo brushed past his markers at the near post and did the needful.
The former Mohun Bagan medio, used more as a roving forward by Mahindra’s English coach David Booth, did the spadework again in the 25th minute. After receiving the ball from Akakpo, James ran down the right, pretended to cut in and by doing so, fooled his marker. A classy backpass followed and Akakpo’s volley took a deflection off a defender before crossing the goalline.
The second goal surprisingly took the bite off Mahindra’s attack. They started looking relaxed (as acknowledged later by coach Booth) and perhaps took Vasco lightly. Not that Vasco made great use of this in the remainder of the first session, but with the spectre of a goal glut receding, they came up with a spirited effort in the second.
A header by Mohammed Qaiser off Ajayan’s cross in the 58th minute went wide and Mahindra would still not wake up. The defenders were slow and hesitant in clearing the ball. They were punished six minutes later, when Ajayan made optimum use of another defensive blunder to pull one back.
Vasco came close twice in the dying minutes. First, Denis Cabral shot into the goalkeeper after being gifted possession by Rauf in the 89th minute. Seconds later, Ajayan was almost celebrating, having unleashed a firm grounder, but to his horror, saw the goalkeeper Sunder Rajan diving to his right and getting his fingertips to the ball. It rolled past the goalpost, out of play, taking out Vasco’s hopes of reaching the final along with it.
MAHINDRA UNITED: Sunder Rajan; Odartey Lawson (Jintu Jose, 55), Cowan Lawrence, Arun Malhotra; Aanjay Parte, Rauf Khan, Khalid Jameel, Jules Alberto (Stephen Dias, 89), S. Venkatesh; James Singh, Raphael Akakpo (Avishek Yadav, 79).
VASCO: Saji Joy; Seby Dias, John Dias, Selwyn Fernandez; Vinu Jose, Kamal Thapa (Sushant Matthew, 60), Menino Fernandez (Sukhwinder Singh, 74), Denis Cabral, K. Ajayan; Agnelo Gomes, Mohammed Qaizer.
Referee: Rizwan-ul Haq.
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