Clash of the underdogs in Durand Cup final

Asia's oldest football tournament — Durand Cup, will see two underdogs, Army Green take on Neroca FC in the final on Sunday.

Army Green in action during its semi-final contest.   -  Special Arrangement

It took 120 minutes and eight shots for Army Green to get past favourite Aizawl FC and enter the final of the Durand Cup, the first Army team since 2005 to reach the title clash of an event organized by the armed forces. It took less than the regulation 90 minutes for Neroca FC to stamp its authority in the other semifinal and ensure it would become the first ever team from the North East to play for the title in Asia’s oldest football tournament.

When the two sides line up at the Ambedkar Stadium here on Sunday, the way they progressed couldn’t have been more contrasting. With arguably the most passionate supporters in the stands, Neroca has been the only undefeated team in the competition so far. Coach Gift Raikhan has been using his players intelligently, changing plans even in the course of a match to counter the opposition. Against the taller and stronger Kashmir players, the ground skills became important while against fancied Dempo SC, the aerial route was used to optimum. Having won the North-East derby against Aizawl FC, Neroca’s mix of experience and youth has worked well.

The semifinal saw Neroca outplay I-League outfit DSK Shivajians with ease, taking time to settle down but once it did, there was no looking back. The defence was tight and no loose balls were given away to the opposition even as youngsters David Lalbiaklala and Malemnganba Meitei kept shooting tirelessly. That intensity and fitness would need to be present for Neroca to add another historical chapter by becoming the first team from the region to lift the title against Army Green.

The Bangalore-based unit has shown it can match up to the bigger, better professional clubs despite not having enough match experience or exposure to competitions. It got the better of big-ticket Sporting Clube de Goa in the league stages and has shown enough heart in crucial, if scrappy, games, starting with its final league match against Gangtok Himalayan -- a virtual knockout. It did the same in the semifinal, not being overawed by the support or reputation of Aizawl FC and constantly attacking and defending spiritedly.

Herojit Singh has been the wall in the defence but the team’s fitness levels have meant he was constantly seen upfront as well. Bobby Chand Singh has been exceptional as well and upfront, captain PC Lallawmkima has been the creator and scorer of many a goal. The Army side, underdog all through the competition, has relied more on its discipline and organized structure than individual flair and that has served it well, as has been the determination to never give up.

With even the organizers pleasantly surprised at one of its teams making the final, the venue is expected to have enough support for both sides on Sunday.

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