Super Cup: Neroca comes from behind to beat Kerala, books QF berth

The Manipur side came back from two goals down to score three goals in 10 minutes to pull off a remarkable comeback.

Neroca FC players celebrate their team's third goal.   -  Biswaranjan Rout

Neroca FC got the better of Kerala Blasters FC 3-2 in the final Round-of-16 match of the Hero Super Cup played at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga stadium on Friday. The Manipur side came back from two goals down to score three goals in 10 minutes to pull off a remarkable comeback.

David James started with a cautious 4-2-3-1 with former Manchester United star Wes Brown leading a solid defence line along with Sandesh Jhingan. On the other hand, Neroca coach Gift Raikhan opted for a regular 4-4-2 formation with newly arrived Frenchman Jean Joachim, who made the switch from Chennai City FC recently, and Nigerian Felix Chidi making up a capable strike force upfront.

Read: Gokulam Kerala settles for goalless draw against India Rush SC

Both teams began with the intention of taking control of the midfield and it was the Kerala side that had the better of the exchanges. It took the lead as early as in the 11 minute through a penalty conversion by Spaniard Victor Pulga. Off an innocuous Kerala attack, referee Pranjal Bannerjee adjudged veteran defender Gouramangi Singh to have handled the ball inside the box and Pulga wrong-footed Neroca keeper Lalit Thapa with considerable ease.

Then apart from a couple of chances, when Prasanth hit the Neroca post in the 25 minute and Vineeth hit the side-netting a minute later after breaking away from midfield to find himself one on one with Thapa, there was not much exciting action in the first half.

At halftime, Sandesh Jhingan, who had picked up an injury on the knee in the first, was replaced by Rino Anto.

Kerala mid-fielders Arata Izumi, Courage Pekuson and Pulga continued their dominance in the midfield and forging attacks after the break. It paid rich dividends when Prashant rushing in from the right, scored after meeting an inviting cross across Thapa’s goal by the Ghanian Pekuson Kerala was 2-0 up and looking in complete control.

Also read: East Bengal beats Mumbai City 2-1 to enter quarters

Raikhan then brought in two changes which changed things for Neroca. Pritam Singh was brought in place of Saran Singh and Govin was replaced by Ashok Singh.

Pritam’s inclusion in particuar brought in a bit of energy in the Neroca attack. The Liberian Varney Kallon first got a free-header of a Neroca corner which brought about the game’s first save by the Kerala keeper Paul Rachubka.

In the 70 minute, off another Neroca corner, the Kerala defense managed to clear the ball only as far as Singham Subhash Singh outside the Kerala box. Subhash chipped the ball back in to find Joachim, who trapped and turned beautifully to bring about a clinical finish.

James probably still did not envision what was coming as he replaced Pekuson, who had a brilliant game with the young Deependra Negi.

Also read: Bengaluru FC scores a fine comeback win

Neroca, clearly more energised after the goal, kept on attacking. In the 79 minute, Kallon found Pritam in the clear on the right with a wonderful long ball from across the field. Pritam trapped, looked up and found Aryn Williams with his cross, who tapped in the header intelligently past a wrong-footed Rachubka.

In the very next minute, off another Neroca attack, referee Bannerjee called Brown for a handball inside the box and pointed to the spot for a second time in the match. Nigerian Chidi converted to send the Manipur side into delirrium.

Neroca now plays Bengaluru FC a week from now in the quarterfinal.

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