Bhubaneswar, Feb 18 (IANS) Services became the first team to secure a place in the semi-finals of the 76th National Football Championship for the Santosh Trophy, to be played at the King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Their comfortable victory over Manipur also threw Group B wide open with three teams in with a chance to secure the second spot. Meghalaya’s thrashing of Delhi and Railways’ narrow win over Bengal keeps both teams in the fray. Manipur themselves are not out of it either.
Services with 10 points (3 wins, one draw) have put themselves in the enviable position of not being toppled. For Railways the equation is simple. The rules of the tournament in case of teams on equal points state that head-to-head be the next measuring criteria. If Railways beat Services in the final game of the group stage, then they will go through as group winners (due to a better head to head with Services) with 10 points themselves. Services will go through as the second best team in the group.
For Meghalaya, things get tougher. They currently have seven points (one draw, two wins, and a loss) and a must win game against Bengal is their final fixture. Even if they win that, and Railways win against Services, it will be Meghalaya who will be knocked out, because of an inferior head to head record – they drew against Railways and lost to Services.
Manipur, who went into the day as among the favourites now have an outside chance of getting through, reliant more on other results falling their way. For them a win over Delhi is a must. It will give them 9 points, and from there they must hope that Meghalaya and Railways both draw or lose their games.
The day’s first game at the 7th battalion ground was supposed to set the tone for the group, with the top two teams facing off. Manipur fresh off an emphatic victory were the form favourites, but within 15 minutes, Services had ripped that script apart.
Lacklustre defending by Manipur saw them concede the first two goals, Liton Shil and B Sunil snapping from close range at the near post and far post respectively, after crosses from either flank. It was abject defending in a must win encounter, and about to get worse.
Goalkeeper Ngamsanglena Haokip had committed a massive error in Manipur’s game against Meghalaya, gifting them a win and even today it was his weak parry from a Christopher Kamei free kick that led to Services’ third.
From there, Services held Manipur at bay, even if not as comfortably as the scoreline would suggest. Naocha Singh, and Naoba Singh both missed chances from close range, both set up brilliantly by Subash Singh. In the second half, Subash himself volleyed over from 8 yards, with a cross from the right. It was just the kind of day it was. The result put Services through, and left Manipur’s hopes in the hands of others.
Buoyed by Manipur’s heavy loss and perhaps the fact that the door for a semi final berth had been left ajar for them, Meghalaya put in a scintillating display of controlled, aggressive football to demolish Delhi at the Capital Football Arena in the evening game of the day.
The goal rush started early, Download Diengdoh scoring off a low cross from close range in the 17th minute to give his side the lead. Meghalaya had been the aggressors in that opening period and thoroughly deserved it. Delhi looked flat and forced to play up – despite having little other than pride to play for – conceded a second before halftime. Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh picked the ball up on the right flank and drove in, before unleashing a fierce right footed effort into the far corner. The goalkeeper was left diving to no avail.
Meghalaya added a third via Diengdoh in the 57th minute, the forward running through from a simple pass played through the Delhi defence, before Ajay Singh seemed to have restored some pride with a late goal. It was not to be. Meghalaya seemed to take that breach personally, adding two more, in injury time to add salt to injury.
In a must win game for Railways, and a game without much meaning other than pride for Bengal, it was the former who took the three points, thus guaranteeing that the race for Riyadh would go on to the last day of the Final Rounds. Railways have climbed back into contention after tightening their defence and getting the crucial goal at the crucial time of the game. It was much the same on Saturday, as they took the lead in first half injury time, before holding on to take the win.