Guwahati, Feb 27: Meghalaya reached the final of the U-21 Dr T Ao Football Tournament with a 2-0 victory over Sikkim in the first semifinal at the SAI Stadium here today.
Man-of-the-match Belton Lartang put Meghalaya into the lead in the 39th minute, while Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh Nonglait finished off proceedings with a second half stoppage time goal to seal the win.
Meghalaya will face Mizoram in the final tomorrow, with kick-off slated for 5PM. Mizoram had defeated Arunachal Pradesh in the second semifinal.
This was the first time in the tournament that Meghalaya (who were Pool B runners-up) kept a clean sheet and the first time that Sikkim (Pool A toppers) failed to score.
Rain fell during the game and conditions were cool as the players came out onto the green, natural turf pitch to (bizarrely) the theme tune of the Indian Super League.
Meghalaya captain Shaibor Nongrum was blocked in the 12th minute by the opposition goalkeeper and roughly 10 minutes later Nonglait’s free-kick was saved with a dive by the keeper.
Sikkim then almost picked up a goal in the 36th minute when a slight mix-up by Meghalaya custodian Frolicson Dkhar and his defenders opened things up, but nothing came of the opportunity.
Three minutes later Figo Syndai zipped the ball into the box from the left flank across the face of goal and this time the Sikkim goalie missed it, which allowed Lartang to slide the ball home for his second goal of the tournament.
Meghalaya held on to their lead going into the break and looked more defensive in the second half.
Syndai had a chance of his own to score in the 69th minute, but his powerful left-footer was put out by the goalie for a corner.
Dkhar was kept busy at the other end as well, making a reaction save to deny Sikkim in the 78th minute and soon after making a great diving save.
Sikkim continued to press, however, but then made a mistake when the keeper was judged to have gathered the ball outside the penalty box. Nonglait took the resulting free-kick and effortlessly guided it into the back of the net, relying more on placement than power.
“I’m very excited and overwhelmed by today’s performance,” coach Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet told TSR over the phone in the evening. “The players worked hard together and that was the most important thing that gave us the win.”
With the team having played five group games and the semi within the space of nine days there are, understandably, players with a few injuries.
“There is some pain here and there, but hopefully the boys will be able to recover by tomorrow evening for the match,” Nongbet said.
Mizoram were the top team in Pool B and when these two sides met in the group stage they played out a 3-3 draw.
Tomorrow’s match could well be another cracker, but whatever happens, reaching the final has already been a major accomplishment for Meghalaya, who have largely been also-rans in football tournaments of more recent years.