Imphal, March 14 (IANS) An intense encounter at the Khuman Lumpak Stadium saw Neroca FC play out an entertaining 2-2 draw with Chennai City FC earlier on Saturday.
The hosts went ahead after Khanngam Horam found the net just 21 seconds after kick-off, registering the quickest goal of this Hero I-League season. Mashoor Sheriff equalised for the visitors midway through the first half before ‘Fito’ Miranda nicked the lead just seconds before the break. Philip Adjah saved the day for Neroca, converting a penalty in the added time to lay claim on a vital point for his side.
Following their thrilling 4-3 win over Punjab FC, Gift Raikhan opted for just one change – a straight swap at the back with Manjit Sharma replacing Rojen Meetei.
Chennai gaffer Akbar Nawas settled for three alterations. Tarif Akhand and Ranjeet Singh were given the nod in his back three, while Charles Anandraj Lourdusamy came in for Pravitto Raju.
The colourful orange stands of the Khuman Lampak stadium lacked the passionate orange brigade due to the ongoing global pandemic, but the action on the pitch certainly didn’t lack intensity.
Nauzet Santana, who has been formidable for Chennai all season, committed a rare goalkeeping error during an attempted clearance. Neroca talisman Philip Adjah took his chances and closed the Spaniard down, blocking the effort. The ricochet fell to Khanngam Horam, who made no mistake with his first-time finish, granting the hosts a lead inside just 21 seconds – the fastest goal of this Hero I-League campaign.
The early goal had catapulted Neroca with some momentum as Chennai seemed a little nervy off the ball. Adjah, who has eight goals to his name already since signing in the winter, remained menacing throughout the game. In the 19th minute, he found Pritam Singh inside the box with a slick lay-off and Santana did well to parry Pritam’s effort away.
However, Neroca’s lacklustre man-marking came back to haunt them again as Chennai found their way back not long after, in the 21st minute. Skipper Roberto Eslava found Katsumi Yusa inside the box and the veteran headed across goal to find Mashoor Sheriff, who had a simple job to tap in the equaliser, and so he did.
Neroca may be left ruing a few of those in their quest to avoid relegation. In the 32nd minute, the hosts earned a penalty for a handball by Charles Anandraj. Subash Singh took the responsibility but Santana redeemed himself and made amends for his earlier gaffe, guessing the right way to keep it out.
‘Fito’ Miranda had missed a catalogue of chances towards the end of the half but struck in the dying seconds of stoppage time. Katsumi led Chennai on the counter and danger seemed to have fizzled out when Taryk Sampson stopped the Japanese playmaker in his tracks. Fito remained persistent and aided by some questionable defending from Ousmane Diawara, Fito tried his luck from a distance and beat Bishorjit Singh in goal, courtesy of a deflection.
Chances had been abundant on either end and not surprisingly so. The linesman flagged seven offsides in the first forty five minutes and with both teams playing a high line at the back, the statistic seems to suggest that both managers may have considered throwing caution to the winds to an extent.
However, the second half was more calculated and Fito’s strike at the death in the first half may have been the catalyst for the change in approach.
In the 62nd minute, Pritam Singh’s forward ball was chested down well by Horam, who went for the spectacular on the volley, prompting Santana to go full-stretch and hold on.
Fito could have rubber stamped the three points in the 87th minute, when an error from Manjit Sharma put him clear through on goal but Bishorjit did well to come off his line and avert danger.
The heist was spoilt in the 90th minute, after second-half substitute, Jishnu Balakrishnan tripped over Imran Khan inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot. Adjah stepped up this time and with fine aplomb, notched his ninth goal this term but more importantly, a vital point for Neroca in their relegation battle.
The hosts climb just a place above to ninth, with 19 points on the board while Chennai remain, where they were, at seventh.