Hosts Neroca FC played out an entertaining 2-2 draw against Chennai City FC in an intense I-League match that was held behind closed doors at the Khuman Lumpak Stadium in Imphal on Saturday.

The hosts went ahead after Khanngam Horam (1st minute) found the net just 21 seconds after kick-off, registering the quickest goal of this season.

Mashoor Sheriff (21st) equalised for the visitors midway through the first half before Adolfo Miranda Araujo (45+2nd), known as Fito, nicked the lead just seconds before the break.

Philip Adjah (90th) saved the day for Neroca, converting a penalty in the added time to lay claim on a vital point for his side.

The colourful orange stands of the Khuman Lampak stadium did not have the passionate fans due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the action on the pitch certainly didn’t lack intensity.

Nauzet Santana, who has formidable for Chennai all season, committed a rare goalkeeping error during an attempted clearance. Neroca talisman Philip Adjah took his chances and closed the Spaniard down, blocking the effort.

The ricochet fell to Khanngam Horam, who made no mistake with his first-time finish, granting the hosts a lead inside just 21 seconds.

The early goal gave Neroca the momentum as Chennai seemed a little nervy off the ball.

Adjah, who has eight goals to his name, remained menacing throughout the game. In the 19th minute, he found Pritam Singh inside the box with a slick lay-off and Santana did well to parry Pritam’s effort away.

However, Neroca’s lacklustre man-marking came back to haunt them again as Chennai found their way back not long after, in the 21st minute.

Skipper Roberto Eslava found Katsumi Yusa inside the box and the veteran headed across goal to find Mashoor Sheriff, who had a simple job to tap in the equaliser, and so he did.

In the 32nd minute, the hosts earned a penalty for a handball by Charles Anandraj. Subash Singh took the responsibility but Santana redeemed himself and made amends for his earlier gaffe, guessing the right way to keep it out.

‘Fito’ Miranda had missed a catalogue of chances towards the end of the half but struck in the dying seconds of stoppage time.

Katsumi led Chennai on the counter and danger seemed to have fizzled out when Taryk Sampson stopped the Japanese playmaker on his tracks.

Fito remained persistent and aided by some questionable defending from Ousmane Diawara, he tried his luck from distance and beat Bishorjit Singh in goal stranded, courtesy of a deflection.

After the break, in the 62nd minute, Pritam Singh’s forward ball was chested down well by Horam, who went for the spectacular on the volley, prompting Santana to go full-stretch and hold on.

Fito could have rubberstamped the three points in the 87th minute, when an error from Manjit Sharma put him clear through on goal but Bishorjit did well to come off his line and avert danger.

The heist was spoilt in the 90th minute, after second-half substitute, Jishnu Balakrishnan tripped over Imran Khan inside the box and the referee pointed to the spot.

Adjah stepped up this time and with fine aplomb, notched his ninth goal this term but more importantly, a vital point for Neroca in their relegation battle.

The hosts thus climbed a place to ninth with 19 points on the board, while Chennai remain at the seventh spot.

Neroca’s Jiteshwor Singh was adjudged to be the Hero of the Match.

Fixture between TRAU FC and Real Kashmir cancelled

The I-League match between Real Kashmir FC and TRAU FC was cancelled on Saturday due to “unavailability of permission” from the local administration, the national football body said.

The match was significant as the battle for the second spot is getting closer with each round.

The Snow Leopards lie fourth in the league with 22 points from 15 games, while TRAU are fifth with the same number of points, but having played two games more.

“Due to the unavailability of requisite permissions from the state administration, the I-League match between Real Kashmir and TRAU scheduled at the TRC Stadium in Srinagar was cancelled earlier today,” the All India Football Federation said.

The match was to be played behind closed doors owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far claimed over 5000 lives globally.