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AIFF Super Cup

Super Cup 2018: Sunil Chhetri propels Bengaluru to book semi-final date with Mohun Bagan

9:35 AM IST 14/04/18
Bengaluru FC NEROCA FC Super Cup
Individual brilliance from Chhetri crashes Manipuri dreams in Bhubaneswar...

NEROCA conceded the least number of goals in the recently concluded edition of the I-League where their defence were breached only 13 times in 16 games. It is not difficult to acknowledge that their scintillating run in the debut season in top-flight football was fuelled by an impregnable back four led by veterans like Varney Kallon and Gouramangi Singh. While they are not the best ambassadors of free-flowing attacking football, they are known to grind out favourable results against their more decorated opponents, by keeping it tight at the back and hitting on the counter.  

Gift Raikhan knew that it would be an acid test for his defenders as they were up against a side who can score at will. Bengaluru have one of the best strike forces in India, led by Miku, who can not only score goals for himself but also create for his fellow forwards, and Chhetri who has been banging in goals for fun. It was not surprising to find that the Manipuri side being second best to Bengaluru for the bulk of the match, as they found it difficult to contain Bengaluru's attack who found space behind their defence with ease. 

It just took four passes to unlock NEROCA's defence in the build-up to the first goal. It all started from a back flick by Miku towards Chhetri who dished out a brilliant diagonal ball for Udanta Singh after spotting his run on the right flank. Tondonba failed to stop Udanta's low-cross drilled inside the box and Lalit Thapa's feeble one-handed clearance fell for Chhetri, who had checked his run to skip his marker and head home from close range. It is criminal to leave Chhetri unmarked inside the box and Gourmangi had no clue that the Indian skipper is lurking behind him. 

With Udanta and Chhetri on the flanks, Subhash Singh and Pritam Singh had to remain alert and always had to track back to help the full-backs Tondonba and Ashok Singh. However, Bengaluru found space down the middle with the Miku-Sunil combo ably supported by the trident of Erik Paartalu Victor Perez and Lenny Rodrigues. 

Just when it felt that Bengaluru would safely go down the tunnel with a half-time lead, Gurpreet Singh Sandu was at fault for not cleanly collecting Aryn William's free-kick. The national team keeper spilt the ball which fell for Pritam Singh whose first attempt was blocked away by Gurpreet but the rebound was buried into the net by the winger. It was definitely Gurpreet's fault to fail to collect the ball cleanly but questions must be asked of Bengaluru's marking as well. The defence was caught napping in general and Nishu Kumar, who was keeping an eye on Pritam Singh, had no clue when and how the winger skipped past him. 

Having equalised right in the dying moments of first-half NEROCA had the psychological advantage which should have reflected in their game after resumption of play. But it was Bengaluru who showed more hunger and got the second goal within ten minutes of restart.

This time it took three passes to get the better of NEROCA's defence before Chhetri kept his calm in a one-on-one position with Thapa and rolled the ball past the keeper. Miku and Sunil seemed to have a telepathic connection as the former Rayo Vallecano man effortlessly lobbed the ball for Chhetri who timed his run to perfection with Tondonba playing him onside. The quick passing caught Gouramangi out of position allowing Chhetri to run towards goal unhindered and it was another world-class finish to squeeze it past the goalkeeper who had done everything to narrow down the angle. 

In a match where you are up against a side who have several quality players, you cannot afford to waste your chances in front of goal. The I-League runners-up were finding it difficult to create opportunities in the attacking third and when Ashok Singh set Odili Chidi up with an inch-perfect cross from the right flank, the Nigerian could not direct his header towards goal. Williams was also guilty of wasting a gilt-edged opportunity when he connected to a corner with his head but had no precision in that effort. The dynamics of the match could have changed if those two efforts had gone in.  

Chhetri completed his hat-trick in injury time as he went solo and curved in a shot at the far post beyond the reach of Thapa. It had class written all over it as the 33-year old showed immaculate composure to find the back of the net. 

Sankarlal Chakraborty was present in the stands to know who Bagan's opponents will be. One wonders whether he will face some sleepless nights after watching Chhetri's performance.