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76th Nat’l Football Champ: Delhi battle West Bengal for a draw, crucial points for Manipur, Services

While braces have been the norm in the tournament so far, N Naocha Singh scored the first hat-trick of the tournament in Manipur’s demolition of Railways.

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Bhubaneswar: The second day of the 76th National Football Championships for the Santosh Trophy saw the opening fixtures played out in Group B, with Services and Manipur registering big wins and heavyweights West Bengal held to a thrilling draw by Delhi. 

While braces have been the norm in the tournament so far, N Naocha Singh scored the first hat-trick of the tournament in Manipur’s demolition of Railways.

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West Bengal, last year’s finalists, were heavy favourites against Delhi in the day’s opening game, which was also the day’s main event. Within minutes, though, that myth was shattered. Bengal were undone by a simple corner in the 7th minute, as Neeraj Bhandari headed in Delhi’s opener.

But with Delhi’s joy came immediate despair. The defender sustained a head injury in the process of scoring the goal, and was immediately substituted. His absence was a huge blow to coach Mohammad Sabir, who made no bones in saying so in the aftermath of the game. 

Having taken the lead, Delhi went on the offensive, taking advantage of a Bengal side that was shell-shocked by what was happening around them. Mohit Mittal and Jaideep Singh missed two glorious opportunities to double Delhi’s lead, the former guilty of volleying over from five yards when the net might have been an easier target.

Whether it was coach Biswajit Bhattacharya’s halftime dressing down, or just general self-awareness, Bengal came out much better in the second half, not just keen to equalise but also dominate the game. Within five minutes of the restart, Naro Hari Shrestha netted the equaliser, tapping in from close range after escaping a napping Delhi defence. Eleven minutes later, he scored another, this time taking the scraps off a rebound from a save. Bengal’s shrill celebration revealed how frustrated and under pressure he had been.

Despite having conceded two quick goals, Delhi never let their heads drop, and stayed focused on doing what they were doing well in the first period. Playing off the counter, they started creating more from the wings, and in the 72nd minute, Gaurav Rawat headed in a cross from the right to spark furious celebrations on the bench. They missed a couple more chances right at the end to sneak away with a win. In the end, a draw was deserved.

Speaking after the game, coach Biswajit Bhattacharya expressed disappointment at the performance, if not the result itself. 

“It was a very haphazard performance,” he said, “We played well in some periods of the game, but otherwise not. I put it down to first game nerves, but there is a lot to improve.”

Bengal have made three of the last four finals in the Santosh Trophy, and Bhattacharya was also keen to stress that the added incentive of the semis and final being held abroad must not be missed. 

“It shows great initiative by the Federation and the President, to arrange for this to happen,” Bhattacharya said. “A lot of these boys have only turned out for their states, and haven’t had a taste of much bigger stadiums, environments, and places. It is a huge motivator. There’s no doubt about it. And who knows, when they play there, maybe they will be scouted by some clubs there, if they perform well, of course.”

Riding on a Naocha Singh hat-trick, the first of the Santosh Trophy Final Round, Manipur’s brilliant second half performance subjected Railways to a heavy defeat in their tournament opener.

A flaccid and goalless first half saw Manipur dominate the game, but their clinical finishing let them down on more than one occasion. It all changed within minutes of the second, though, when Pangabam Naoba Meitei turned into space on the right flank and cut a perfect cross for Naocha to tap into goal from five yards. The floodgates had seemingly opened.

Naocha added a second in the 69th minute, scoring into an empty net after Subhash Singh’s shot had bounced off the post. Despite Railways’ 72nd minute goal, there was never any threat of a comeback, with Naocha getting his hat trick and Longvah adding the cherry on top of a brilliant performance that took them to the top of the group.  

A clinical and effective first half display saw Services down Meghalaya 2-0 in the evening game at the Capital Football Arena. 

B. Sunil scored the opening goal of the game in the 28th minute, before Ronaldo Singh added a second in first-half injury time. It was enough for them to hold Meghalaya down in the second half and take the three points.

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