Bhubaneswar: An injury-time equaliser by Delhi left the battle for Riyadh open in Group B, Services made to wait to earn their spot in the semi-finals.
Manipur meanwhile shrugged off their loss to Meghalaya and won big to keep their hopes to make the knockouts of the 76th National Football Championships for the Santosh Trophy strong and alive.
A Manipur team stung by the defeat to Meghalaya in their previous game ran rampant against a hapless Bengal side at the Kalinga Stadium in the evening kick-off. The loss means Bengal are now knocked out of the competition, with two games yet to play.
Manipur’s architect in chief was Subash Singh, who rolled back the year in a scintillating performance right from the start.
Singh had a part to play in each of Manipur’s goals, his pass sending Naoba Meitei into space on the right in the first half, from which the youngster finished brilliantly, shooting into the far corner, from an acute angle. For Bengal, the pain soon got worse.
Having conceded a needless freekick at the top of the box, Bengal saw the effort tipped on to the crossbar by Raja Barman, only for it to loop back straight into Subash’s path a yard from goal. He gratefully headed it in, sparking a melee inside the goal itself.
Bengal came out with a bit more energy in the second half, utilising their wings, and doing damage from crosses from both sides. Within nine minutes of the restart they had their reward, Souvik Kar heading it in to halve the deficit.
A period of Bengal pressure followed, Manipur happy to play on the counter, with Subash constantly pulling the strings to set up chances for his younger teammates. None of them could finish.
With the game edging towards a close finish, came disaster again, Biswajit Hembrom volleying a cross from the right into the top corner of his own goal to give Manipur breathing space. The defender had been under just the mildest of pressure by Subash, enough to put him off.
In injury time came the coup de grace, Naocha Singh and Subash playing a brilliant touch and go and the former finishing perfectly from inside the box to give Manipur a well deserved victory.
Services coach MG Ramachandran had cautioned his team against taking things easily after winning their two opening encounters, saying that it was a group of equals, and on the day he was proven right.
A win would have seen Services become the first team through to the knockout stages, for the better part of 92 minutes they looked like doing so.
Having started off stronger and with more purpose, Services took the lead in the 21st minute via a Christopher Kamei penalty. Kamei, who had sparked the comeback against Bengal, with a brilliant free kick equaliser, was the architect of everything Services did right in the game.
Despite going down though Delhi were not out, and in the final minutes of stoppage time, hit the crossbar from an Ajay Singh header, before Bhabindra Malla Thakuri pulled off a sharp save to ensure his team went into the break with the lead.
If Thakuri’s saves had been crucial to Services’ results so far, then for Delhi, inspiration would come in much the same way. Goalkeeper Taranjeet Singh effected as many as five saves from point blank range in a second period that saw end to end action, Delhi holding more of the ball but Services creating the bulk of the chances.
Liton Shil, Deepak Singh and Bikash Thapa all saw their shots at goal thwarted by Taranjeet. It sparked a resurgence, almost making Delhi believe that this was in fact their day. Deep in injury time, just when Services thought they had wrapped it up, calamity struck.
Dhruv Sharma played Bhola Singh through on the right of the box, and the defender crossed square inside the six yard area. PP Shafeel, backtracking towards the line, slid and could only divert the ball into his own net.
Delhi had drawn level. Right at the death though Services had one more chance to win it, Ronaldo Singh shooting at goal from 10 yards, after an acrobatic Deepak Singh cross had bounced back in the box. Taranjeet parried and Delhi survived. For Services, the wait to Riyadh was prolonged.
A gritty Railways defence denied Meghalaya any chance at goal at the 7th Battalion ground on Wednesday. Meghalaya, fresh off a hard fought win over Manipur may have fancied their chances against a side that had been trounced by Manipur in the opening game.
The Railways men though had learnt their lessons well, the defence tightening up to take a second consecutive clean sheet.