Whatever his worries were before the season Bhogtoram Mawroh was absolutely thrilled with yesterday’s performance by Shillong Lajong in the I-League game against Aizawl. Phrangki Buam, Kenstar Kharshong, Aiban Dohling, Samuel Kynshi and Novin Gurung all get a thumbs up from him.

Yesterday’s victory against Aizawl has to rank among one of the best performances from Shillong Lajong in a long time.

They completely outplayed the team from Mizoram and could have had more goals if the referee had not been blind to the foul committed on Phrangki Buam in the penalty box. It was a very dominating performance and a great morale booster for the remainder of the season. Tougher challenges lie ahead but if yesterday’s performance is anything to go by, the future is looking a little more secure.

However, to tell the truth, I almost missed this great game. I got to the stadium just before kickoff and so I didn’t hear the announcement about the lineups. But when I saw Hardycliff Nongbri come out as one of the substitutes I almost got up from my seat and contemplated heading towards the exit. I feared that the same farce that took place under Thangboi Singto’s regime was unfolding once more. After establishing himself as the linchpin in Lajong’s midfield Hardy was being sidelined again (it happened last season as well). However, I am told that he is returning from injury and therefore may not have been completely match ready.

Based on the brief time he was on the pitch he looks ready and I hope to see him in the starting XI from the next game. After a trying first season, this is the season when Hardy is supposed to come into his own. This is the season when he is set to announce himself on the national stage and show the country what a wonderful talent he is. I wish him all the best for that.

As for the match, it was not very surprising to see Lajong line up in a 4-1-3-2 formation. This was the formation that Alison Kharsyntiew had played with the whole Shillong Premier League season with mixed success. The back four becomes a back five while defending with Lalrohlua going into the middle between Aiban Dohling and Kenstar Kharshong. This had the effect of depleting the midfield, which was compensated by the two forward players, Samuel Lalmuanpuia and Naorem Mahesh Singh retreating to provide options.

As a result, both in midfield as well as in defence Lajong always had a spare player. In the attacking third, however, there was no one putting pressure on the opposition’s defence, which encouraged the Aizawl centre backs to push higher up. This opened up a lot of space behind, which was exploited by Lajong.

Such a formation, however, leaves the wide areas completely free for the opposition’s fullbacks. As such, it was really surprising that Aizawl didn’t switch their play enough. In the latter stages they did threaten Lajong’s goal a little more but the defence was able to hold on in spite of some nervy moments.

The solid performance by Lajong’s back four was very important because it is this defensive organisation which is going to help them go far in the I-League. Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.

While the defence did well as a collective, Aiban’s leadership at the back was the difference maker for Lajong in this match. He was given the task to make sure Ansumana Kromah was not given any space and he did that with aplomb. And when crosses came from the flanks he dealt with them expertly as well. His distribution was also impeccable and it was his pass to Novin Gurung that started the chain of events which led to the super strike from Mahesh.

His partner in crime, Kenstar Kharshong, had only one nervy moment when Kromah was able to turn him and release a shot that whizzed past the bar. But apart from that incident he was always in the right position and dealt with the attacks that were thrown at him. Like any great defender he rarely lunges into a challenge but stays on his feet and makes sure the attacker does not get any space.

If Aiban and Kenstar can form a strong partnership for the whole year, the team will be in a great position come the end of the season. Novin, playing on the right, also looked really bright. He was not only strong in defence but was equally good going forward as well. On the left Rakesh Pradhan was happier going forward and it was his cross that led to the second goal.

But, at the same time, there were at least a couple of occasions when he was caught out of position and ball watching. The latter mistake almost led to a goal with the shot from Aizawl’s wide attacker not very far from getting into the back of the net. Based on the performance in this match, Rakesh is the one who has to tighten his game. The mistakes he made can prove very costly in the future. I am sure he will work on it.

Although Samuel Kynshi was not my first choice player in the starting XI he was the most impressive in the midfield. The way he moved around the pitch outfoxing his opponents with his feints was a treat to watch. He held the ball well and made sure the game was always played at a good pace. His work rate was also admirable. On a couple of occasions he was dispossessed when he was lingering on the ball for a little too long. However, it is incidents like these which are going to help him become a better player. I did not think he had a good SPL and looked the most likely to miss out in the midfield. But he proved me wrong and I am so happy for it.

The player who was in my first XI, though, Phrangki, looked anonymous during the first half. It was in the second half, though, that he came to life and what a pleasure it was to watch him run with the ball. During one such marauding run he was pulled down in the penalty box and should have been awarded a penalty. He was again denied by a superb save from Aizawl’s goalkeeper. I am sticking out my neck and predicting that by the time the I-League gets over he will have more than a couple of goals to his name. As an U-15 Phrangki was one of the main players and was about the right age to be picked for the Indian football team for the U-17 World Cup.

The argument against him could have been that he wouldn’t have won physical duels with players from other teams. But for those who watched the World Cup the difference in physicality between Indian players and others was very stark. None of them won any physical duels, for that matter. So it was a false argument and he was very unlucky to miss out on national squad. But there is a senior team waiting for him and I hope he will be ready for it by the time the season ends.

The win against Aizawl was very sweet as it came on home soil. No matter how good or bad the season may be, you don’t lose a derby at home. That is unpardonable. The performance in this match was top notch and it was a great treat to watch the team play. There was a style and a swagger in the way Lajong played. The next challenge, however, will be tougher – East Bengal. They should go for the win but even if they are able to draw the match it will be a big step forward for this young team.

This is a new phase for not only Lajong but for the fans as well. To see our local players get the chance to shine is a dream we all had for so many years. Now it’s becoming a reality and I hope the farce of the past does not rear its head again (this time I will not take part in it). All the best to Lajong for the next match.

(TSR photo)

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