Sethu FC staged an incredible comeback against Manipur Police FC to be crowned winners of the Indian Women’s League’s third edition in Ludhiana on Wednesday.

And if numbers are anything to go by, the Madurai-based side were worthy winners in the end.

Sethu won all their matches in the tournament and scored the most number of goals – a staggering tally of 45 that included an 8-1 mauling of SSB Central in the semi-finals.

But just as they outclassed Manipur in a 10-goal thriller during their group-stage fixture, the final did live up to its hype.

Before the end of the first half, Sethu FC were dominant side and had done well to keep Manipur’s potent attacking duo of Daya Devi and the rampant Bala Devi quiet. However, after conceding a soft goal through Radharani Devi just minutes before the break, a comeback seemed improbable.

After all, Sethu FC had never been put in such a situation this season given the way they had steamrolled all their opponents. But they rallied around and fired on all cylinders – first, an own goal by Umapati Devi opened the scoring before a brace from striker Sabitra Bhandari put the game to bed.

More than Nepal international Bhandari, it was Sethu skipper Indumathi who led from the front. The midfield lynchpin turned feeder for both of Bhandari’s goals on the afternoon and ran the show in the middle of the park.

“My key target was to supply the through balls to Sabitra [Bhandari], I am happy that I was able to turn the game,” she told Scroll.

“It has been a very good experience captaining the side. I was the captain last year as well but this year we got our combination spot on, that is what got us the trophy,” she added.

Selecting the right players

Photo credit: AIFF

For Sethu head coach Amrutha Aravind, it was months of advance preparation and scouting that bore the fruits.

“We planned in advance during the Hero Cup in Bhubaneshwar. I was selected as coach and after seeing the matches I decided which players to pick and where I will play them. So I followed the game of the Indian women’s teams in the Gold Cup, Turkish Cup and Olympic qualifiers,” she revealed to Scroll.

“Nepal also played there, so we analysed their matches and selected the players. Plus from Tamil Nadu there are 14 local players in our team, including seven from outside. In the first week of April, we announced the team and then we began the camp in Chennai, so it was all results of our preparation,” she added.

Aravind also waxed lyrical about Bhandari, who spearheaded the attack with aplomb alongside wingers Sandhiya and Dangmei Grace.

“If the strikers don’t play according to our pace then it is always a problem. But she is fast and very sound tactically and technically. So she combined very well with our players and she was very important for us in all the games,” she added.

In the post-match press conference, Manipur head coach Mutum Surmala had cried foul over the questionable referring decisions after her side were denied two penalties. Her counterpart Aravind was not on the same page.

“The officials are qualified and they stuck to their job. I did not find any fault with the referees,” she responded.

Just like the previous two editions, the 2019 tournament also witnessed many one-sided contests where multiple sides lost by a heavy margin. Aravind, however, defended the claim that competition was easy.

“It all depends on your preparation. Although we won all our games, our first match against Manipur was very tough. There are a couple of good teams in Bangalore United, Kolhapur City and SAI-STC Cuttack but since we always prioritized attacking football, there were such big scores. We had prepared and trained very well,” she added.

Striking the defensive balance

Defender Ashalata Devi, who marshaled the defence with conviction in the finals, would reveal there were no specific plans to stop leading goalscorer Bala Devi. In the end, it was her experience that worked in her favour.

“I work for the Railways and since I also play for them, we keep playing against Manipur regularly. So I know her [Bala Devi] very well and we have also spent time in the national team. I was aware of her movements and there was no specific plan against her but we did not want to give her much space after conceding four goals in the first match,” she said.

Four of the seven goals Sethu conceded came in their opening fixture against Manipur. But since then, an improved and reinvigorated rearguard turned their fortunes around.

“Since I had my job, I couldn’t join the practice sessions and I had to directly join the camp in Chennai. So I was rushed in into the playing XI and in the first game, there was a lot of communication problems in the defensive line. Even our fullbacks – Muthu and Juki – were very inexperienced, so we faced a lot of problems in the first game.

“But after practising more, we gelled together and our confidence improved and so did the communication. Even in the finals, the way our fullbacks played, there was such a good combination. I was very happy with them,” the 23-year-old said.