The Qualifying Playoff of the Hero Super Cup witnessed an extended battle at the Manjeri Payyanad Stadium on Monday, April 3, 2023, as the two Hero I-League sides, NEROCA FC and Rajasthan United, slugged it out for a place in the next round.
In the end, NEROCA made the grade with a 3-1 victory in the penalty shootout after 90 minutes of regulation time and then another half hour of extra time ended in a 2-2 deadlock. With the win, NEROCA earned the right to face Sreenidhi Deccan FC in the next round.
In Monday’s encounter, both teams decided to keep their foreigners out and fielded all-Indian sides. It couldn’t, however, deter NEROCA from emerging third time lucky despite being down 1-2 until deep into the extra time. It was a kind of sweet revenge for them, as Rajasthan won on both occasions when the two teams met in the Hero I-League earlier in the season.
In the first half, though neither side displayed enough tenacity to breach the rival goal, it was NEROCA, who drew the first blood seconds before the referee called for the half time. Rajasthan goalkeeper Vishal Joon did his team no favour when he spilled the ball in the box. Lunminlen Haokip, who was lurking nearby, gleefully accepted the opportunity to tap the ball home.
The Rajasthan resurgence began only in the 65th minute. Substitute Shaiborlang Kharpan, who replaced Alister Anthony in the 59th minute, proved his coach Pushpender Kundu’s decision right when he made the most of a low cross from the right. With this goal, the match was dragged into extra time.
But then, NEROCA have themselves to blame as they missed an easy chance in the dying minutes of regulation time. Substitute Lourembam David Singh did everything right when he entered through the left and even stepped past the custodian. He had an empty net in front, but his attempt was cleared at the goalline by Rajasthan’s substitute defender Jagdeep Singh.
The match looked to be moving the Rajasthan United way in the 98th minute when Lalremsanga leaped high in the air to nod home a cross from the right. An unnerved NEROCA tried to hit back, but were further disintegrated when defender Lallenmang was given marching orders for an unfair tackle. They had to spend the last eight minutes of the match with 10 players. The Imphal side, however, didn’t lose heart and Sweden Fernandes brought them back into the match with a goal in the third minute of the extra time.
In the shootout, NEROCA replaced their goalkeeper, Soram Poerei came on in place of Subham Das. It turned out to be a good move, as he made three saves to leave Rajasthan frustrated. While only William Paulliankhum could score for Kundu’s side, Sweden Fernandes, Paugoumang Singson and Jonychand Singh found the mark for the winners.