We’ve got just three matches to go in the Shillong Premier League 2019 and the advantage is clearly with Lajong. Bhogtoram Mawroh reflects on Lajong, Langsning, Kenstar Kharshong, Phrangki Buam and why we need more teams in the SPL…

By defeating Langsning comprehensively, Lajong have guaranteed that a draw against Ryntih will be good enough to see them crowned SPL champions after a gap of two years. Even if Rangdajied United win the last match by a big margin over Langsning, they will require Ryntih to do them a favour by winning their match against Lajong. Although Lajong have the upper hand, they should resist from celebrating too early. Football has time and again shown itself to be a very unpredictable game and nothing can be said to be certain until the final whistle is blown. So we will all have to wait a little longer to know who the new champions will be.

This high drama mystery is a testament to the quality of the teams that are taking part in this season’s SPL. Personally I do not want to see any of the teams relegated, be it Laban and Nongrim Hills/Nangkiew Irat. The league is very short and there is a need to increase the number of teams so that more players can get the opportunity to test their skills. My worry is that there will be an exodus of players from the relegated clubs, some of whom will be absorbed in the promoted teams. This will block the path of players who had helped their team get into the SPL. Relegation and promotion is important for the health of the league, otherwise it becomes a sham tournament. At the same time, I think we need more teams and more players to be involved in the SPL to improve the game in the state.

Giving a platform for more talent to emerge is the reason why the Meghalaya State League is so important. Players need to play a lot more top quality games and we need more teams to ensure that happens. Otherwise it’s the same players playing for different teams, which is not helpful for improvement of the game in the state. There is a need to rethink regarding the number of teams in the SPL sometime soon. Sooner than the time it takes to get First Ground ready, I hope.

Talking about relegation, Langsning’s loss to Lajong by a big margin did not come as a surprise. Langsning’s defence has been in shambles this season and they are lucky that they are not in a relegation dogfight. The team have no recognised centre backs and the fullbacks are wide attacking players being made to play in a defensive position. On top of that there was constant chopping and changing of the midfield, which made it difficult for the team to get into a rhythm. In spite of their top players being poached by other teams, Langsning started well and at one point of time had a genuine shot at the title. Although I wasn’t sure that they could win the title I had confidence that they would finish in the top three. That is not possible now and they should be happy that they have managed to avoid relegation.

Langsning’s defensive woes stem from two reasons. The first is the lack of height in the centre of the defence. Every time there is a cross or a high ball played into the box, there is pandemonium among the defenders. It’s very difficult to remember Langsning winning any headers in their own box. Ryntih exploited this very well in the win against Langsning with their fullbacks, especially Allen Lyngdoh Nongbri’s crosses creating a lot of problems. To be fair, Langsning didn’t have tall defenders last season as well. But the ones who played in defence, especially Brolington Warlarpih, was a specialist centre back who has been playing in that position for a very long time. Dibinroy Nongspung, Restomwell Khriam and Milancy Khongstia were also highly experienced. This year they had Batskhem Tariang and Ksankupar Khongmalai play in a position for which neither looked comfortable nor competent. Next season if they choose to go again without at least a couple of recognised centre backs they are going to have a long season. I refuse to believe that a team of Langsning’s stature cannot attract good talents for those positions.

The other defensive problem that Langsning has is that the defenders are always prone to ball-watching. The first goal that Phrangki Buam scored was the perfect example of that. When Amon Lepcha drifted to the wide the defence should have been alert to runs into the box, especially from Phrangki. Making runs into the box to occupy the central position is how Phrangki likes scoring his goals. The moment Lepcha was winding up for the cross, Phrangki was on the move and one could clearly see him preparing to make his run. Surely enough Lepcha delivered the ball into the box. Phrangki glided past the ball-watching defenders and took the shot. It was so simple and so easy. This was not a one-off occasion. Time and again Lepcha was left in a lot of space with no one marking him. It’s a wonder Lepcha didn’t score any goals. Maybe Langsning can do without big, strong centre backs but they cannot do with the team being so naive in their defending. The ball doesn’t put itself into the net, it’s the players who do that. While attacking you need flair but while defending you need solidity. Langsning have got an abundance of the former but the latter is greatly missing.

As for Lajong they might end up winning the SPL trophy and this will be mainly due to the performance of two players – Phrangki and Kenstar Kharshong. To be honest, Phrangki has had an inconsistent season. He has scored a bucket load of goals but wasn’t impressive in all the matches. In spite of not playing up to his potential, his goal tally, especially for an attacking midfielder, is highly impressive. But the one player who has been consistently brilliant for Lajong throughout the season has been Kenstar. Even when the team was not playing well, he kept up his standards and has proved to be a tremendous leader. The last gasp goal against Nangkiew was a testament of his desire and mental strength. His quality and leadership will be hugely required when Meghalaya start their final round of the Santosh Trophy in Mizoram. Maybe this will be Meghalaya’s year and if that happens Kenstar will have a major role to play.

Although I would love to continue watching him play in Shillong, Kenstar has become too good for this level. If he wants to improve and someday play international football he has to look for opportunities elsewhere. I would suggest that he try out for teams who are either playing in the I-League if possible or those who are competing in the I-League Second Division. It will be difficult as there are many players who are also aspiring to do the same. The good thing in his favour, at least for now, is his age, which will give him some time to settle. But whatever happens I would like him to remind him of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s case.

In 2016 Sandhu become the first Indian to play in the Europa league when he turned up for Stabaek. Unfortunately he lost his spot in the team and, though the coaching staff wanted him to remain with the club, he choose to return to India and join Bengaluru FC in 2017. His decision makes sense in terms of monetary benefits and professionally as well since he has become the first choice goalkeeper for India. However, harsh though it may seem, he chose the easy way out. Instead of fighting for his place, he decided to return to more comfortable surroundings where the quality of competition is not so high. Among the Indian goalkeepers, I like Amrinder Singh a lot but it will require Sandhu dropping his standards drastically for the former to get opportunities. Even if Sandhu had not come back to India, the fact that he was playing in the top league of a European nation guaranteed him a starting berth in the national team. The question which will never be answered though is: Sandhu is good enough for a country which is outside the top 100 but is he good enough to play for an international team in the top 50?

He will never know and neither will any of us. The same questions will be asked of the top players who are playing in the SPL, more so of someone like Kenstar. Is Kenstar good enough to play football at the highest level? I believe he is. However, that depends on the quality of the competition to which he is exposed. Kenstar has the potential to be great but for that he has to be brave.

Redeem Tlang’s performance in this year’s SPL is evidence to the quality of the players Meghalaya has. Redeem’s exclusion from the India probable team was baffling. Oman and Qatar are tough opponents but the absence of incisiveness against Bangladesh reveals the lack of cutting edge for India at the moment. With Sunil Chettri not firing yet in the ISL, there is a worry that India may again come unstuck against Afghanistan. With India’s qualification hopes hanging in the balance, not selecting Redeem, who is in form, could be a big mistake. If Igor Stimac comes out of the game with a positive result no questions will be raised, but if he doesn’t he will have a lot to answer for.

Notwithstanding the disappointment of missing this opportunity, Redeem has to put his head down and continue working hard. If he keeps performing he will eventually get his opportunity. In my opinion, Redeem can go up two more levels. Although he hasn’t given a direct assist, the penalty won against Hyderabad came about as a result of Redeem keeping his calm in a tight space and playing the ball to Luedo. Playing key passes and racking up assists is something which will take his game to the next level. Of course, goals will always matter. With the start Redeem already has had, anything fewer than 10 goals at the end of this season will be a disappointment. I wish Redeem all the best for the remainder of the season.

As expected this season’s SPL has been a memorable one. So many close matches with some great individual performances. The SPL is meant to be springboard for players from Meghalaya to showcase their talent and till now I am not disappointed. With the quality being on display during the U-18 SPL, the next season will be a more exciting one. I have always enjoyed watching Mawlai play and it’s really good to see them finally getting promoted. The 2019 SPL, though, is still not over. Really excited about the remaining matches, I hope we will end the season with a bang. Cheers!

(TSR photo)

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