Santosh Trophy: No crowd to cheer, but Meghalaya chug along defeating Punjab

Meghalaya penned yet another page in their storied run at this edition of the Santosh Trophy, beating Punjab in the semi-final in India’s first-ever domestic game being held overseas at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh. The Khlain Pyrkhat-coached team beat Punjab 2-1 in front of a sparse crowd and made it to their first-ever Santosh Trophy Final.

A working Wednesday, a 3 PM kickoff time, but mostly a disconnect of the local Indian population to the state teams on offer, meant that not many people were present to watch Meghalaya take the win from Punjab. The volunteers and officials outnumbered the crowd in place. Most of them, with no crowd to control, began to clap and cheer the teams. As the game went on, a slow trickle of people came into the stadium, but were nowhere close to what anyone would have wanted for the first game.

Before the start of the two semi-finals, AIFF president Kalyan Chaubey spoke to a group of reporters and said that Kerala and Bengal’s failure to qualify for the semi-final made a dent in the federation’s plan to host a game outside India teeming with Indian fans from the two states coming to support them. “I was hoping that teams like Kerala or Bengal would qualify for the semi-finals. If they had qualified, maybe a lot of people from Kerala would have come to watch the matches,” said AIFF president Kalyan Chuabey. This was despite efforts from the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia to circulate that Indian state teams were in Riyadh to play four games of football.

Despite the lack of fans, both Punjab and Meghalaya played on, each with their own idea of why reaching the final was an important step. For Punjab, reaching the summit while missing some key players would have been the icing on the cake. For Meghalaya, a team not many thought could make it this far in the tournament, this was a golden opportunity to create their own history.

The game began with the swing of possession lying more on Punjab’s side. Meghalaya ‘felt’ quicker but Punjab’s ability to slow down possession in the middle and keep a hold of the ball afforded them larger control of the game in the opening moments of the match.

It was a platform from which they converted. Parmjit Singh, a midfielder for Punjab, waved two of his teammates aside and took a long-range crack at the Meghalaya goal. 16 minutes in and Punjab were dreaming of the final.

But then, Meghalaya’s control in the middle of the park started to grow. In the 36th minute a freekick was whipped into the Punjab box by defender Allen Camper Lyngdoh. The ball found Nikelson Bina at the far post, who then directed a header downwards that bounced smack in the middle of Punjab’s defensive line. None of them cleared the ball and eventually Meghalaya’s Figo Syndai found himself in an opportunistic position to tap in the ball and level the scores.

The first half rambled to a close with both teams getting clear chances to score but both missing their opportunities. While the second half began with both teams looking to rest control, it wasn’t until 90 minutes were about to end that Meghalaya created some magic.

Just as it started to seem like the first semi-final would be heading into extra-time, Meghalaya mustered one last foray forward. Donald Diengdoh’s mazy run ended just outside the box with a slick pass to Sheen Stevenson. The Meghalaya forward took a step with the ball into the box and rifled a left footed shot to the goalkeeper’s far post. The touch followed by the shot was made possible by two of Punjab’s defenders slightly backing away from the oncoming Stevenson, allowing him the space to unleash the winner minutes before the referee’s whistle was to blow for the end of the match. Meghalaya were through and fell to the floor. Punjab were out and had to be consoled by their own team management and the Meghalaya players.

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