What was the biggest standout from the two Second Division semifinals on Friday and Saturday? Ans: the fans! Bhogtoram Mawroh pays tribute to them and looks at what Nongthymmai and Umphyrnai might have to do to win the final next Saturday… 

On Liverpool’s famous victory against Barcelona where they overturned a three-goal deficit at Anfield, Jose Mourinho credited two things for this extraordinary turnaround. The first was the stress on grit and determination over tactical acumen and the other on the intimidating home support that Liverpool enjoy at their home ground. Both of these were on display in the two Second Division semifinals that took place at the JN Stadium.

The first match between Nongthymmai and Jongksha was a relatively quiet affair in the first half. Nongthymmai used their advantage in height to good effect by scoring off two headers. Both goals were scored by Balanstar Taro, one from a corner and the other from a cross. As the team went into the tunnel for the half time team talk it all seemed over for Jongksha, who didn’t really look like they wouldn’t threaten their opposition. That proved to be so wrong.

In the beginning of the second half, Nongthymmai were more dominant but as the game wore on Jongksha began coming back. Initially Jongksha were playing a quick transition game with early balls to their forward players. Because of Nongthymmai’s height advantage in defence the tactic didn’t bear the desired results. In the second half, led by their captain Harket Khongsngi, the team starting showing more confidence with the ball at their feet. This confidence was accompanied by an aggressive gameplan. Strong in their tackles and quicker to react to loose balls, Jongkha began to dominate the game. The two goals they scored to level the game were because of the intense pressure that had been created on Nongthymmai. After every goal the confidence was boosted further and they looked like the most likely team to win the match. When the final whistle was blown to signal for a penalty shootout, however, it was Nongthymmai who were relieved and Jongksha disappointed.

In the penalty shootout, just like it was Harket who was instrumental in bringing his team back into the game, this time it was Founder Kharnaior, Nongthymmai’s captain, who proved to be the difference maker for his team. Scoring a penalty and saving a couple was enough to win the semifinal and, with it, qualification to the First Division.

Nongthymmai were lucky to win the match. Although they scored the first two goals of the game, the way the players wilted under pressure in the second half was just inexplicable. What made a team in control in the first half crumble in the second? For me there were two inter-related reasons for that: the first was the aggression from Jongksha, which was driven by the second, pressure from the crowd. Especially after the goals were scored, the crowd were boisterous and anyone sitting in the stadium would be forgiven for thinking that they were in Jongksha. For those who don’t know, Jongksha is a beautiful village on the way to Mawkynrew. I especially like the tall trees lining the main road and the beautiful kitchen gardens hugging the houses. In short, it’s a picturesque location.

Nongthymmai crumbling under pressure does not bode well for them in the final where they will face Umphyrnai and their lively supporters. The second half between Umphyrnai and Laitkor was a very well-supported match with fans from both teams filling up almost all the stands. In the beginning it was Laitkor’s supporters who were the loudest and it was not difficult to see why. With good technical players it looked like the team who would not only win the semifinal but the final as well. But like Mourinho observed, in games of such high magnitude desire, more than technique or tactics, makes the difference.

Umphyrnai understood very well that they would not be able to compete with Laitkor in terms of technical play, so they had a very simple gameplan: have their strikers play on the shoulders of the last defenders to take advantage of a ball over the top of defence. This tactic was drilled into everyone with no one trying anything extraordinary. Umphyrnai combined this quick transition style with an aggressive team pressing. In this they were led by their captain, Armanki Kharkongor. The moment the ball reached Laitkor’s midfielders, Rikmenlang Nongrum and co, Umphyrnai players swarmed over them. And when the ball was won, a quick ball was played over the defence. This created havoc in Laitkor’s defence with the second goal especially the result of the confusion between the defenders and Laitkor’s goalkeeper, Deranius Wahlang.

In their semifinal match Jongksha used the same tactic but were unsuccessful. There were a couple of reasons for that. The first was that there was a huge difference between the balls played. Umphyrnai played the ball behind the defence while Jongksha played the ball in front of the defence. With the former, a defender has to track back, which is always difficult when you have a quick striker to keep you company. In the latter the ball can be easily cleared by tall defenders. The tactic Umphyrnai used mirrored that used by Lajong against Indian Arrows in the 2017-18 I-League season. On that day Lajong won.

The other reason why the tactic worked for Umphyrnai was the high line played by Laitkor. Because Laitkor wanted to compress the pitch so as not to allow the opposition any space in front, they left a lot of space behind. Laitkor’s central defenders played on the halfway line which meant that any ball over the heads would mean a lung-bursting sprint back to their own goal. Umphyrnai’s tactic was simple and effective. On the other hand, after going down by two goals Laitkor looked lost. They didn’t know what to do – play a quick transition or build by playing the ball on the ground. This lack of clarity resulted in the team going nowhere.

When the team came out for the second half Laitkor looked a lot more relaxed and clear in their mindset. Egged on by their supporters and brilliant wing play of Samborwell Mynsong, Laitkor got their two goals to level the game. After each goal Samborwell encouraged the fans to raise the din even more. The atmosphere was simply electric. Both sets of supporters competed with each other when it came to the decibel level. This did lead to a bit of tension but that only showed the level of passion that permeated the atmosphere in the stadium.

The vociferous support was what allowed both teams to hold their ground. Laitkor kept piling on the pressure and got two great chances. One was put over the bar while the other was saved by Umphyrnai’s goalkeeper Purabor Kharkongor. On the other side of the pitch another mix up between Laitkor’s defender and Deranius resulted in the fifth and decisive goal of the match. There was little time left to get back into the game for Laitkor. Eventually the dreaded whistle was blown and the underdog won the match. Deranius, especially, was inconsolable because it was his error that resulted in the team losing the game. To him I would say that he is going to experience such games in the future as well. The only way he can overcome such heartbreaks is to not let them define him but make him stronger. I wish him all the best for his future.

Umphyrnai’s win has them now pitted against Nongthymmai who they will meet once more (they were both in Group A in the round robin stage). Although both teams have qualified for the First Division it will not take away the sheen of what is promised to be an exciting game of football. Umphyrnai will definitely rely on the counterattacking game which worked very well for them yesterday. Nongthymmai should look to thwart that by not leaving too much space behind and also have the back four play close and tight to each other. The worry for me regarding Nongthymmai is the ability of their players to handle the pressure of the occasion and the crowd. For sure the Umphyrnai supporters will make the atmosphere electric and the team will feed on it. But when the players of Nongthymmai look for support they, like in their semifinal, might find only their officials. If this happens there will be only one champion: Umphyrnai.

Nongthymmai’s run to the final of the Second Division in the 75th anniversary year of their sports club is akin to Paulo Coelho line from the Alchemist “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. Against this desire of the Universe is the will of the supporters of Umphyrnai who will flock to the stadium to see their team triumph one more time. I joked with my friend, Nathan Diengdoh, Vice-President of Nongthymmai Sports Club that they should buy a pig for the community feast to celebrate Nongthymmai’s win in the semifinal. He better do it because if Nongthymmai can’t get supporters from their locality to match Umphyrnai’s 12th man that opportunity may not come again soon.

(TSR photo)

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