“This football is your life and if it is, play like you are playing for your life and if you want to get rich,” was the simple advice from Neroca FC coach Gift Raikhan to his boys at half-time in the Durand Cup semifinal against DSK Shivajians here.
Leading by a solitary goal then, it clearly motivated the Manipur side to go all-out for a winner post-break and register a comprehensive 3-0 win against the Pune side, becoming the first team from the North East in the process to reach the title clash of Asia’s oldest football tournament on Friday.
The other semifinal was dramatic with just one goal scored in 72 minutes and three added in the next eight before Army Green prevailed over Aizawl FC 4-2 in the shoot-out.
Army Green took lead with Bikash Budhathoki’s cycle kick off a throw-in in the 23rd before Aizawl parked itself in Army half post break and reaped reward.
Army went ahead a second time 45 seconds into extra time through Herojit Singh before scores were levelled again, with Bright Middleton scoring his second equaliser of the night.
Shivajians started well. There was greater discipline and cohesion among the players, and a plan of action visible in the way captain Juan Quero Barraso created openings up front.
The team kept switching flanks with long aerial passes, but there was no accuracy in the attack. Mohd. Sajid Dhot marshalled the defence well and Irishman Shane McFurl provided able support.
Neroca, on the other hand, took time to settle down. But, once it did after the first 15-20 minutes, there was no let up on pressure from it.
It took the lead in the 34th minute against the run of play, Sushil slotting home a penalty after Subhash was brought down by Rohit Kumar. That goal, and perhaps the coach’s exhortations, lifted the team’s spirit and, post-break, Shivajians not just struggled to create chances but fluffed the ones it got and failed to find any combination among its wayward players as almost a dozen corner kicks went waste.
Barraso was substituted, but his North Korean replacement Kim Song Yong hardly made things better. He got an open chance but hit wide, which was the story of Shivajians throughout the game.
Neroca kept attacking in waves and a brilliant cross from Ashok Singh on the right in the 65th minute was chested by Anand Kumar Singh to an unmarked Malemnganba Meitei, his long-ranger landing in the back of the net.
There was no urgency from the Pune side, however, and by the time it finally pushed McFurl up to add sharpness to its attack, it was too late.
Arif Shaikh got a chance to reduce the margin in the 89th minute, but hit over and Anand Kumar added insult to injury with a third goal seconds from time.
The results: Semifinals: Neroca FC 3 (Sushil Kumar Singh, Malemnganba Meitei, Anand Kumar Singh) bt DSK Shivajians 0; Army Green 3 (Bikash Budhathoki, Bikram Adhikari, Herojit Singh) vs Aizawl FC 3 (Bright Middleton 2, Lalramchullova).
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