Imphal: The Army Red Football Team (ARFT) exited the 131st Indian Oil Durand Cup on a high, by registering a 1-0 victory over the reigning champions of the Indian Super League (ISL), Hyderabad FC (HFC), in the penultimate Group C game at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal.
HFC had already qualified as group toppers winning their first three matches comfortably. Captain Suresh Meitei scored the winning goal in the 33rd minute.
ARFT as a result ended their campaign with five points. Second place in the group is yet to be decided and the final game on Monday, will decide whether Neroca FC or Chennayin FC follow HFC to Kolkata for the knockouts. Even if that game is drawn, the Reds will be eliminated on goal difference.
HFC coach Manolo Marquez did field some players who were featuring for the first time in the tournament but even then, it was a quality HFC eleven on the pitch first up, against the M.G. Ramachandran coached Army Red.
The game began with a flurry of attacks by both sides in the first 10 mins. Manoj Mohammed started it in the 3rd minute with a measured cross from the left flank aimed at Borja who surprisingly completely missed his header. Then Liton Shil, who was a busy body throughout the game, put HFC keeper Jongte under pressure before Lalchungnunga Chhangte on the counter, unleashed a left-footer which went wide.
Chhangte was again in with a chance in the 20th, when Sahil Tavora put him through with a wonderfully weighted cross, but the Reds keeper Bhabindra Thakuri was at the right spot to defuse that crisis.
And he would be there at the right place till the 98th minute of the game, when he brought about his umpteenth save from a Sana Singh bullet, to hold the Reds fort in a famous win.
Though HFC were looking in control, the Reds also continued with their regular attacking forays. That persistence paid dividends when Manoj got himself booked for a high boot challenge in the 32nd minute and the Reds got a free-kick just outside the box on the right.
Their No. 10 Christopher Kamei took it- a curler with his left which was headed towards goal.
Skipper Suresh Meitei was in the middle of the melee in front of goal and swung his head to get a feather-touch. The flick hit Jongte’s outstretched arm to hit the back of the net. Chhangte had another opportunity to respond immediately but he hit straight at Thakuri with the entire goal at his mercy.
Army Red finished the half not only with the lead but also with 58% possession Marquez began the second half by replacing rookie Soyal Joshi with Reagan Singh. One by one he brought on his big guns in Siverio and then finally Joao Victor and the biggest gun of them all Bartholomew Ogbeche, the highest scorer of the tournament so far with four strikes. But none of these tactics worked against a determined Army Red in this game.
It is not that HFC were not getting chances. Thakuri denied Borja thrice in a 10-minute period. Siverio, who had been introduced just before the hour mark, missed three chances by the 72nd minute.
Yaseer was Marquez’s final throw of the dice with just over a quarter of an hour to go. But even that did not materialize as Thakuri along with the Reds backline of Sunil, Shafeel, Kamardeep and Suresh Meitei had the game of their lives.
When the final whistle was blown it was well past 11 minutes of regulation time but in the end, it was well worth the wait for a gallant Army Red. HFC finished with nine shots on goal to the Red’s three but the latter had kept the lion’s share of 59% possession.
The only game features Odisha FC taking on Army Green at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Sunday.