Garhwal FC looked set to sign off its 2020 I-League Qualifiers campaign with a win but ended up having to share points with ARA FC despite the team from Gujarat missing a first-half penalty.
Defender Neeraj Bhandari gave his team an early lead but a late spot-kick from Surajit Seal saw both teams walk off the field at the Kalyani Stadium with honours even on Friday.
ARA was struggling to cope with the early pressure and soon found itself behind, courtesy a set-piece. Muhammed Shafeer won the foul in the opposition half after being hacked down by Cedric Fernandes just as Garhwal was upping the tempo in the 17th minute.
Captain Bala Alhassan sent in a beautifully floated ball into the area and defender Bhandari timed his run to perfection before connecting with a powerful diving header from close range to open the scoring.
ARA had a couple of good opportunities as it began to find some joy with long balls towards its forwards. Shoaib Ahmed, who was Vivek Nagul’s only change from the previous game, was sent through in the 22nd minute but Garhwal custodian Sayak Barai showed good awareness, lobbing the ball over the onrushing forward with his right hand before collecting it safely.
Goalscorer Bhandari was at hand to fulfil his primary responsibility as a defender in the 35th minute when ARA winger Pratik Swamy skipped past Rahul Das to break into the area. However, Bhandari was attuned to the danger and snuffed it out with a last-ditch tackle.
Pratik, however, looked to have the better of Das a few moments later inside the box when he was brought down by the defender’s trailing foot, winning a penalty. Ahmed took the spot-kick but saw his effort fly high over the top right corner.
Garhwal started the second half brightly with Mahip Adhikari rattling the crossbar in the 50th minute with a first-time volley from the edge of the area. At the other end, Ahmed had another golden opportunity after being played through on goal but his shot only rippled the side netting.
A counter-attack resulting from an ARA corner should’ve seen Garwhal double its advantage but once again it was wasteful in front of goal. Adhikari carried the ball from inside his own half and even got the better of his marker inside the penalty area. But with only the keeper to beat, the midfielder squared it to Varikoddan, whose weak effort was blocked by substitute Akshay Mall.
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Varikoddan had another great opportunity in the 79th minute as he got a deft touch to a cross from Suman Sarkar but this time Melroy Fernandes in the ARA goal positioned himself perfectly to save from point-blank range.
The missed opportunities came back to haunt Garhwal in the very next minute. Prabin Tigga played a beautiful long ball into the path of Stanley Eze, who saw his attempt cleared off the line but the Nigeria striker was fouled just as he pulled the trigger and the referee signalled for a penalty.
This time defender Seal stepped up to take responsibility and made no mistake, sending Barai the wrong way to level the score. The goal sparked off a frenetic end to the game as both sides hunted relentlessly for the winning goal but ended up having to share the spoils.
This marks the end of the campaign for Garhwal which finishes with just the solitary point on the table. ARA FC, which now has two points from three games, is out of contention for the top spot and next returns to the Kalyani Stadium to take on Bhawanipore FC on the final matchday on Monday.
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