Hoping that Laban could give a challenge to the more established teams in the Shillong Premier League this season, Bhogtoram Mawroh had cold water poured on his hopes when Laban were hammered by Rangdajied United yesterday…

You may support any team in this SPL but there has to be a soft corner for what Laban has achieved in the last one year. From being on the brink of shutting down, the manner in which the club rallied to win the First Division last season was nothing but inspiring. Truth to be told, I was hoping that Laban could be one of the dark horses in this SPL. What I saw in the game against Rangdajied, however, has poured cold water on all my expectations.

The way the team crumbled against their rivals, escaping relegation will be the biggest challenge for Laban this season. In many cases the scoreline of 5-0 is an apt reflection of a team being outplayed by their opponents. But in this case the scoreline should have been much worse.

Laban lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Joy Mrong Kharraswai and Cho Tshering Lepcha played upfront supported by Nitesh Monde and Aplang Buam. Behind the two strikers were Pominlal Hmangte and Dron Bharadwaj playing as the two central midfielders tasked with the responsibility to create as well as shield their centre back pairing of Rakesh Masih and Suman Lepcha. Protecting the flanks were Rajinder Kumar and Nitin Jyal. Laban, in fact, started quite well with the team moving the ball quite smartly, looking for openings to carve up Rangdajied.

The first chance of the game in fact fell to Laban with Joy releasing a stinging shot which fortunately for Rangdajied went straight to goalkeeper Padam Chettri. A little to the left or right and it could have been a difficult save for the goalkeeper. The shape of the team was also quite good. Trying to play a high line, Laban’s compact shape made it difficult for Rangdajied to play through the middle. The only option left for Rangdajied was to play long diagonal balls with Aiborlang Khongee particularly delivering some great cross field balls to the attacking forwards. For the first 15 minutes the game was evenly contested.

In contrast to Laban, Rangdajied played with a 4-3-3. Belton Lartang playing as the holding midfielder with Ronaldkydon Lyngdoh Nonglait and Raikutshisha Buam playing as the attacking midfielders. Donlad Diengdoh played as the sole striker supported by Dawanchwa Challam on the left and Knerkitlang Buam on the right. Ambilstar Sun and Niawkorlang Kyndiah, two natural centre backs played as full backs. It was in the centre of defence that there was a surprise, Aiborlang Khongee partnering Mebankhraw Wahlang.

Personally I was very surprised to see Aibor deciding to return to Shillong. I believe that he still had 3-4 years of international football left in him. The Indian national team is right now facing a crisis in central defence, prompting Igor Stimac to recall Anas Edathodika from retirement. Narender Gahlot looks like a good prospect but, still being inexperienced, will take time to get used to international football. Recently Salam Ranjan Singh and Anwar Ali, two promising centre backs, were released from the India probables camp. With Anas recently forced to come out from retirement, Narender still quite raw and Sandhesh injury prone in the last few years, central defence is the position which is up for grabs. In case of emergency, Igor can play Rahul Bheke or Subashish Bose, natural full backs, in the centre, or maybe even Adil Khan. This ad hoc solution may backfire and the pressure of results might force Igor to look elsewhere. Having played as a centre back for India and doing very well, Aibor could have been in line for a recall. In fact, till injury forced him out, Aibor was a regular for his ISL teams. His return to Shillong thus could be because of the injury concerns. In any case, his presence in the team should help Mebankhraw, who himself is a promising central defender.

For the first 15 minutes, with Laban choking the midfield, it was Aibor who took the responsibility to create for his team. This is where I think Laban missed a trick. Joy should have put more pressure on Aibor and forced him to make a mistake. The lack of aggression from Laban’s front two allowed Rangdajied to start growing into the game. The first signs of danger appeared from Rangdajied’s right side when some dangerous crosses were played in the middle. Although these chances were wasted by Rangdajied’s attackers, the amount of space afforded to them was perplexing. It is where one has to question Rakesh Masih’s leadership. Though Joy was the captain, Rakesh was the most-experienced player and playing as the centre back should have taken responsibility to organise the defence. It didn’t happen. Very soon another good combination play orchestrated by Knerkitlang on the right left Dawanchwa in a lot of space, allowing him to score his first goal of the match.

The second goal did not take long to come. Not long after he had released a shot from outside the box, which didn’t miss the goal, by much Ronald scored the second goal. Having come into prominence as the U-22 player for Langsning in the I-League Second Division, Ronald’s stock has gone up quite spectacularly. When Hering Shangpliang changed the team shape from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, Ronald was the one to miss out in the midfield at Langsning. His performance during the entire 2018 season, though, was nothing short of brilliant. For me the second leg in SPL 2018 against Lajong was where he showed everybody that he is destined for great things. Let’s hope he can fulfil his potential. After the goal, Ronald, who was having a quite game, began to drop deeper and controlled the game with his combination play and accurate passing. But just as Rangdajied started improving Laban regressed drastically, looking out of ideas and totally bereft of any confidence.

After the second goal the body language of Laban changed dramatically. Having looked assured in the first 15 minutes they began looking increasingly brittle. Laban’s players began losing their individual battles and the whole team looked in disarray. Suman’s passing was highly wayward and Rakesh almost scored an own goal. In the midfield Dron looked lethargic and cumbersome. Aplang Buam made way for Bickyson Kharkongor and Cho retreated to the midfield while Pominlal moving to the right. This didn’t bring the desired change, with the team looking progressively more ragged as the game neared half time.

Laban’s tactics in the beginning of the match were not bad but I have question marks on the personnel deployed. I have to admit that I have seen only a little of Joy. However, I don’t think that being a striker is his natural position. Central midfield, either as part of a double pivot or as the number ten is where he is more suited. I thought that though he was playing as one of the two strikers, he would be one the dropping deep and creating chances for his partner. In fact whenever he had the ball at his feet he looked a class above others but having to win headers was a waste of his ability. The fact that he played upfront till late in the game was a big mistake which I hope Laban’s coaching staff can rectify in the upcoming games.

There was a hope that the second half would bring some improvement in Laban’s play. But it got worse. Rakesh, who was trying to encourage his players, also gave up. The manner in which he was bullied by a much smaller player like Donlad was not a good example for his team mates.

There are others who had a much worse game than Rakesh, but he was a former India international and I expected a lot better from him. In fact there was a time when I was looking forward for him being a regular India international. The thing that impressed me about him many years ago was his first touch, which was superb. For me the first touch of a player reveals his/her quality. He had that and though he is long way from his glory days, it was his leadership that disappointed me the most. Losing is not the problem, giving up is. In the future matches, it is he who has to stand up and rally the team because if his shoulders drop, the team will also follow.

His other partners, apart from Suman, Rajinder and Nitin, also had a bad game. Nitin’s performance was perplexing. He was much bigger than Dawanchwa but kept losing headers to his opposite number 15. How was that possible? As for the goalkeeper, apart from the diving one shot save to prevent an own goal, Mohammad Shahnawas kept misjudging the flight of the ball. Like Nitin, he also lost his duel with Dawanchwa, who was able to beat him with a header to score his second goal. How can a tall keeper who can use his hands lose against a smaller player in a high ball situation? Bickyson got some good chances to have a run at Rangdajied’s goal but he kept losing possession and with it the opportunity.

I know this is not the I-League or ISL but such insipid display is highly embarrassing. As such for me, Laban’s performance was in more ways sad rather than frustrating.

Rangdajied on the other hand, showed some rare ruthlessness, which was missing last season. Having scored three unanswered goals, they brought Samson Nongrum, who, assisted by Donlad, scored a brace to make it 5-0 for Rangdajied. Samson is a player I have always enjoyed watching and his two goals underlined his importance to the team once again. Playing upfront, Donlad did what he always does best, pulling defenders all over the place and creating space for the other attackers. While the first assist was a cutback, the other was a looping ball played under great pressure, both expertly converted by Samson.

At the same time, the one gap in Donlad’s game was again exposed – a lack of goals. This was not a problem last year with Langsning when other players were scoring the goals created by his hard work. But with this team, he will have to score some goals if Rangdajied are to have any chance to winning the SPL.

Laban’s fairytale is threatening to become a horrible nightmare. I don’t know what can be done but something drastic has to happen. When you are down, the only way is up and I hope this is the case for Laban. As for Rangdajied, after drawing their first game, they have made a statement of intent with this performance. Have they got something special which might help them finally cross the line this time, I am still not sure.

But one thing is sure – with Ryntih and Lajong, the other contenders, losing games to Langsning and Nangkiew Irat respectively, this season could be very closely contested.

Who knows, in spite of being weakened by departures, Hering Shangpliang could engineer a third consecutive trophy for Langsning. Or is it going to be former U-19 SPL champions Nangkiew Irat who finally bask in the glory of being SPL champions? Time will tell.

(TSR photo)

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