Bhubaneswar: Neroca FC rallied to get the better of Kerala Blasters 3-2 in a final Round of 16 match of the Super Cup at the Kalinga stadium on Friday.
The Manipur side came back from two goals down to score three goals in the space of ten minutes to pull off a remarkable comeback.
Victor Pulga (11th, penalty) and Prashant (49th) helped Kerala to a healthy lead before Joachim Junior (70th), Aryn Williams (79th) and Felix Chidi (82nd penalty) completed a superb comeback for Neroca who finished second in the I-League defying odds. Neroca now play Bengaluru FC exactly a week from now in the quarter finals.
David James, the coach of Kerala, started with a cautious 4-2-3-1 with former Manchester United star Wes Brown leading a solid defence line along with India National Team Captain Sandesh Jhingan. India forward C.K.Vineeth led the attack.
Gift Raikhan, the Neroca coach opted for a regular 4-4-2 formation with newly-arrived Frenchman Joachim, who made the switch from Chennai City FC recently, and Nigerian Chidi making up a capable strike force up front.
Both teams began with the intention of taking control of the midfield and it was the Kerala side which had the better of the exchanges. They took the lead as early as in the 11th minute through a penalty conversion by Spaniard Pulga. Off an innocuous Kerala attack, referee Pranjal Bannerjee adjudged veteran Neroca 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 25th 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 to report in the first half. Kerala were looking comfortable and in control.
At the start of the second half Sandesh Jhingan who had picked up an injury on the knee in the first, was replaced by Rino Anto.
The half turned the game on its head and how. It started just like the first half had with Kerala mid-fielders Izumi Arata, Courage Pekuson and Pulga dominating midfield and forging attacks. As early as in the third minute of the half, off a fantastic build-up by Kerala orchestrated by Pekuson and Pulga, Prashant rushing in from the right, scored after meeting an inviting cross across Thapa`s goal by the Ghanian Pekuson.
Kerala were 2-0 up and looking in complete control. 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 particular brought in a bit of energy in the Neroca attacks. 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.
Then in the 70th minute, off another Neroca corner, the Kerala defence 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.
Neroca, clearly more energised after the goal, kept on attacking. In the 79th 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 this time called Wes Brown for 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 delirium.