Two goals in the closing stages of a closely fought encounter capped off a remarkable turnaround for the AIFF Regional Academy, Navi Mumbai and sealed their place in the final of the 13th All India Challenge Cup following a 2-1 win over Mohun Bagan SAIL Academy at the Chandigarh Stadium Ground.
Inspired by Rakesh Oram’s brace, the team showed great character and resilience to pull themselves back into the contest after trailing by a lone goal for a major part of the ninety minutes.
Opponents Mohun Bagan, who qualified for the semifinals after winning Group B with an unbeaten record, had the better of the opening exchanges and took the lead as early as the 21st minute when a long-range strike from the wing looped over AIFF keeper Sayantan Pyne and sailed into the far corner of the goal.
The early setback resulted in a string of attacks by the AIFF outfit who went all-out in search of the equaliser. Bagan’s ploy of defending deep, deploying rough tactics to shake up the forwards and clearing the ball as far up the field as possible worked for a while as the teams went into the halftime break with the score at 1-0 in favour of the Mariners.
Changing over, Mohun Bagan continued to defend deep in their own half and seemed content with holding on to their slender lead and running down the clock. Just when it seemed that all was lost, the AIFF colts were back in the contest in the 77th minute courtesy of a superb header off Bidyananda Singh’s corner by tireless winger Rakesh Oram.
With the game inevitably heading towards the dreaded lottery of penalty kicks, Rakesh grabbed the winner in the 85th minute, reacting quickest to a mistake by the opposition keeper and coolly slotting home from close range.
At the final whistle, it was clear that the best team won and progressed to their first ever competitive cup final.
Awaiting the AIFF Academy in the title clash on Monday, 30th September will be hosts Chandigarh Football Academy, who overcame Mahilpur Academy, Punjab in the second semifinal.
(Report & Picture courtesy AIFF Media)