It was the second minute of time added on. As the ball was cut back to the league’s top scorer Asier Dipanda Dicka, all the Cameroonian had to do was to bury the ball 10 yards from goal.
Having scored once already, you’d have put money on him to finish the job off for his team Shillong Lajong. As he pulled the trigger, it deflected off a defender and it went hit the post and went wide.
Inches. That’s what separated Bagan celebrating a Lajong win from regretting their 1-0 loss at Aizawl FC last week. In the end, the power and prayers of a (growing after this night) community of Indian football neutrals pushed the ball the right way as far as Aizawl FC were concerned.
Two minutes later, the whistle was blown by Pranjal Banerjee who had an excellent game irrespective of all the questions in the build-up to the game. Everything was forgotten as the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong became a red blur.
Nervy opening and early setback
Time had stood still for the previous week as soon as it came to light that Aizawl would be needing a point in the North-East derby to be crowned champions of the I-League 2017.
Lajong had stressed that they would be happy to play the villains and they played the role to perfection for the opening hour of the match, as Mizo hearts feared the worst after Dicka’s fourth-minute opening goal.
A run down the right from Bipin Singh and found Dicka who who turned it in off the underside of the bar to leave Aizawl trailing early on. Lajong would go on to frustrate Aizawl for large parts of the path, doing a number on their influential players.
Thangboi Singto’s men had done their homework well, suffocating the highlanders of the space they needed to make their magic happen as the likes of Jayesh Rane and Mahmoud Al-Amnah were pressed and double-teamed. The tension was getting to the reds, with the centre-back pairing of Kingsley Obumneme and Zotea booked in quick succession, the latter goading the referee with his sarcastic clapping.
Jamil goes for broke
News of Chennai City’s goal against Bagan came as a tonic to the drooping shoulders on the pitch and in the stadium as the result of this match threatened to be inconsequential for a brief period of time.
CCFC held the lead only momentarily before Bagan restored parity through Katsumi Yusa. In this age of high speed internet and real-time announcement, the stadium’s microphone system was making sure Aizawl couldn’t escape the reality of the happenings in Kolkata.
Half-time arrived with Jamil remonstrating with the officials in a act of defiance, something that has become the norm for him. He brought on William Lalnunfela, a 21-year old Mizo striker who had scored a brace during Aizawl’s last match in the second division and a player who had lifted the Santosh Trophy title with Mizoram in 2014.
Would Jamil’s latest and last party trick be enough to push them over the line?
Backs to the walls and the unthinkable
Aizawl started the second half in barnstorming session, attacking the away end with all their might in search of the one goal that would make them champions. Jayesh Rane blazed over when in clear sight of the goal as a correct offside decision would rule out another strike.
The Mizos were giving up too much space in midfield but were launching wave after wave of attack on the Lajong goal. Lalnunfela finally made this dominance count as his header hit the post with Vishal Kaith stranded in no man’s land. The 21-year old would not miss a second time, putting away the rebound to send the 3000 odd-Mizo contingent present into raptures.
Meanwhile, Bagan scored a second through Darryl Duffy which meant that Aizawl would have to hope for a draw in Shillong. Singto had other ideas however as he brought on his Brazilian striker Fabio Pena to try and sneak a win and break Aizawl hearts.
And so it happened that in the four minutes of injury time, Lajong came close to breaking the deadlock on two occasions, Aizawl clung on for dear life hoping for some divine intervention as viewers back home had their hearts in their mouths.
At full-time, the Mizos dropped to their knees at the culmination of what has been a whopper of a four-month journey for them, from relegation certainties to the champions of India. As for the Indian football neutrals, they had witnessed a glorious chapter in the sport’s history.
Those back home and in attendance knew that they would never see anything like it ever again.