To be one man down against Shillong Lajong is a daunting prospect. To be two down is disastrous. And so it proved for Nongrim Hills yesterday in their SPL match, which was a pity, given that Bhogtoram Mawroh feels that they were the better side…

The game between Lajong and Nongrim is a good example of how a rash moment can result in the better team losing the game. Before the double send-off for Nongrim for protesting against a penalty decision, they were the better team and it seemed like Lajong were going to crash to a second consecutive defeat. Being a man down against a team like Lajong is a daunting prospect. But when Lennypaul Kurbah and Reymond Sutnga were sent off, it became an even more difficult task. But credit to Nongrim, who, despite the numerical disadvantage, kept up the tempo and continued to cause Lajong a lot of problems. Tactically, Nongrim were a better team than Lajong.

Both teams started with a 4-3-3 formation with a slight variation compared to one another: for Lajong Batskhemlang Thangkhiew played as the lone holding midfielder with Phrangki Buam and Remark Kharmalki playing in front of him. Nongrim had Bishar Mawthoh and Lennypaul as the two holding midfielders with Nikelson Bina playing as the free roaming number ten. Batifar Swer played as the lone striker supported by Alem Khongwir on the right and Justerwell Tham on the left. In attack for Lajong Donboklang Lyngdoh and Naorem Mahesh Singh complemented Samuel Lyngdoh Kynshi, who played through the centre. The defence was marshalled by Kenstar Kharshong, Apborlang Kurbah and Kynsailang Khongsit for Lajong while Kitdorlang Lyngdoh Nonglait, Reymond, Russel Nonnkynrih and Banshemphang Kurbah had the responsibility to thwart any attack on Nongrim’s goal.

In the initial stages Lajong were the ones who began brightly. Their full backs Apborlang and Kynsai played very high, trying to overload their respective flanks. Kynsai especially went on a couple of mazy runs from his deep position to support the attacks. Nongrim were finding it difficult to cope with the pressure, with Alem, especially, not beginning well. He failed to keep up with Kynsai, who time and again was able to go around him with ease. And when Alem had the ball his passes were wayward and that created an opportunity for Lajong. A loose pass fell to Kynshi, who released a shot outside the box which could have resulted in a goal. Before this Phrangki had taken a beautiful free-kick that crashed into the goal post.

Though Lajong were relegated from the I-League and will possibly not try for promotion until 2024, Kynshi and Phrangki had a good campaign. Phrangki was the top scorer for Lajong and should have won the I-League emerging player award. Curiously, there was no award at all last season. Kynshi, on the other hand, was selected for the India camp though he couldn’t make the cut to the final squad. There is great hope that both players will shine in this campaign. Their good beginning was a good sign for the team. However, after the Kynshi shot things began to change in favour of Nongrim, who began to increasingly dominate the game.

Nongrim’s ascendance began with their midfield trio of Bishar, Lennypaul and Nikelson completely dominating Lajong’s midfield. Quicker to react and instantly dispossessing their counterparts, Bishar and Lennypaul were absolutely brilliant for their team. They interchanged the attacking role perfectly. When Bishar made forward forays into Lajong’s attacking third, Lennypaul stayed behind to shield the defence and when Lennypaul took the ball forward Bishar remained behind. And then there was Nikelson, who being given the free roaming role, was all over the pitch helping in defence and attack. In fact he released a stinging shot after getting control of the second ball from a corner and it was unfortunate that it went straight at the goalkeeper. With the midfield completely dominant, it was from the flanks that trouble began for Lajong. Alem, especially, began to shine. He carried the ball into the midfield and played it to Justerwell Tham, whose shot was wide and didn’t really have much power. Very soon Alem himself got a chance, which he couldn’t take advantage of.

Instead of responding to Nongrim’s aggression with their own aggression, Lajong began to fade. Naorem was getting bullied from the ball while Phrangki, Kynshi and Donboklang were anonymous. A lot of it had to do with Nongrim’s brilliant tactics as well. Their offside trap worked very well. But what was most impressive was their team pressing. Nongrim implemented a pressing game by overcrowding any Lajong player who had the ball and instantly dispossessing him. And when they had the ball they tried to play a quick transition with an early release to the flanks, especially the left from where Justerwell was playing. Apborlang, in fact, had a very bad game. He was not helped by the fact that Naorem was not tracking back to support him. Time and again Justerwell was able to go around Apborlang, combining well with Nikelson and Lennypaul.

It looked like Nongrim’s goal would come from the left. However, the goal came from the right when Alem took advantage of a poor clearance and released a shot which reminded me of Jamie Vardy’s goal against Liverpool. In fact, come to think of it, both Vardy and Alem like to use their speed to create problems for the opposition. However, in terms of being prolific, Alem has a long way to go. If he can improve his goal scoring he can be the most devastating striker in the SPL. Right now he has to become more ruthless. This was evident when he chose not to take the shot when he was inside the box but instead passed it to another, wasting the chance. Another opportunity for Nongrim soon came when Nikelson was able to beat his markers and had the opportunity to pass the ball to Batifar, who could have taken the stride. Instead he decided to take his own shot and was completely off target. These missed opportunities came back to haunt Nongrim very soon.

In order to change things around, Donboklang shifted to the middle with Kynshi going to the left. This did not have the desired effect. Eventually it was a set-piece which allowed Lajong to come back into the game. Kynshi took the corner, which was missed by Nongrim’s defender, but not Kenstar Kharshong, who calmly tapped the ball into the goal beating Jeasley Sungoh. It was inevitable that the person who brings Lajong back into the game will be their captain and the only player who was able to hold his own during a poor first half. Reading the game very well and intercepting any early ball, Kenstar was rock solid in the middle of the defence. The only blemish that can be attributed to him would be his decision making in some instances when he took time to clear the ball. It was in the second half that Kenstar’s performance became more prominent for his team.

The second began like the first with Lajong taking the initiative. Phrangki again had a shot at goal and then the story of the first half starting repeating itself. Nongrim began dominating the match. I think it does not take much to rile Lajong technical director Jose Carlos Rodriguez Hevia, who was the most vocal person in the whole stadium. In many ways it was the performance of his team which made him mad. It was fun to watch him berate his players (I am sure it was not fun for Lajong’s players) and the crowd taking his case. And then there was the stare which could melt the polar ice caps and flood the planet. He is so much fun. Back to the game, combination play was completely lacking and Donboklang was substituted for Dajied Wanshnong, the U-18 captain: a little less flashy but a very effective player. Apborlang’s problem against Justerwell continued, Alem was a constant nuisance and Nikelson was running circles around Lajong. Everyone from Nongrim was having good game, especially Russel Nongkynrih, who seems to have continued from where he left off with Sawmer last year. Defending stoutly and good at going forward, Russel was quite impressive. Everything was going well for Nongrim and then came the moment of madness.

Under intense pressure from Lajong, Nongrim conceded a penalty which should have been the end of it. The way they were playing they would have found a way to equalise. Instead, their players chose to argue over what was already given and in the melee Lennypaul and Reymond were sent off. Lennypaul was having a very good game in the middle of the pitch while Reymond’s strong frame had kept Lajong’s smaller attackers at bay. The penalty was scored by Naorem and it seemed that the game was spoiled. But credit has to go to Nongrim who persisted with nine men and kept putting pressure on Lajong.

As for Lajong, even with numerical superiority they found it hard to control the game.  Batifar, who, compared to his other team mates, was having a quiet game, began winning free-kicks for his team that was not properly utilised by Nikelson. Again, as in the first half, the only Lajong player who stood tall was Kenstar. An immaculate reader of the game, he intercepted any attack that was mustered by Nongrim and cleared his lines with assurance. His two years in the I-League seems to have had a good effect on his development and he is well on his way to greater things. His first season was superb and for me he was Lajong’s best player during the 2017 I-League. His second season was marred by the club’s outrageous decision not to buy any foreign or senior players. Despite the team’s tactics letting him down, Kenstar tried his best with Aiban Dohling but couldn’t save the team from relegation. Lajong’s downfall was not his fault nor that of any Lajong players who gave their best but were let down by the team management. Kenstar will soon have to move to fulfil his dreams for international football. In the meantime, he has to continue leading his team the way he led them yesterday. For me Kenstar was the man-of-the-match.

Nongrim’s numerical disadvantage soon became evident when another penalty was conceded, won by Phrangki again. He converted the penalty and the game finally petered out. Lajong were relieved that in spite of playing badly they were able to come out on top while Nongrim will rue their one moment of madness, which led them to lose a game they were poised to win. Both teams will have question marks as they go into the next matches.

Nongrim will have to replace suspended players while Lajong will need to find steel and guile in the midfield. All in all, it was a beautiful game under a beautiful sky. Let’s hope that we can have more of such games but without the extra drama. Cheers!

(TSR photo)

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