Imphal, Manipur: NEROCA FC and Chennai City FC shared the spoils in a thrilling 3-3 tie that by all means has opened the Hero I-League title race wide open. Chennai City FC still hold the pole position with 34 points having played 16 matches, two points clear of debutants Real Kashmir FC who are placed second now. Neroca FC are now placed fifth in the points table with 26 points from 17 matches.
Chennai City fired in three in the first half through Pedro Manzi (34’; 41’; 45’+1’) who scored his fourth hat-trick this season. Neroca FC came back strongly in the second half through Felix Chidi in the 52nd minute followed by a goal each from Chencho and Aryn Williams in the 68th and the first minute of the added time finishing off the game in a tie. Pedro Manzi of Chennai City was adjudged the Hero of the Match.
Chennai were one down on their Spanish armada at the start of the game today with defender Roberto Eslava missing out and Pandiyan replacing him. Slovak utility player Jozef Kaplan also started for a change with coach Akbar Nawas deciding to start Jesuraj on the bench.
Manuel Fraile, the home side’s Spanish gaffer also made two changes to the starting line-up, playing Tondomba Singh and under-22 Naocha Singh in place of Ashok Singh and Abdul Salam.
Neroca dominated the first half with left-winger Singham Subhash Singh troubling the Chennai defence with repeated forays down the left flank and channel.
Two such forays in the 17th and 20th minute found Katsumi’s head. The Japanese was closer from the first one, making good contact on the near post but missed the target.
Then in the 26th minute, a wonderful ball from Aryn Williams found Chencho through and the Bhutanese sniper rounded the goalkeeper, but his attempted cross from a narrow-angle with the goal empty was cut out for a corner.
However in the 34th minute, as has been the norm this season and quite against the run of play, Chennai’s three classy Spanish attackers combined for yet another wonderfully crafted goal to give the visitors the lead.
Sandro found Nestor Jesus on the left flank with a long ball from just inside their own half. The mercurial Nestor cut in and from just outside the box noticed Pedro Manzi’s run inside the box and played him in. Manzi swooped in and with a left-footed jab, slid the ball into the net from between keeper Lalit Thapa’s legs for his 14th strike of the campaign. Nestor also recorded his sixth assist to go with his six goals.
Then disaster struck in the 41st minute as Liberian defender Varney Kallon inexplicably gave the ball away to none other than Manzi with only the keeper in front of him. The striker drove forward, kept his cool and slotted home over the keeper’s right shoulder.
Neroca then had a chance to get one back when Malem was in the clear inside the box thanks to another great Aryn Williams ball, but the midfielders powerful strike towards goal was wonderfully saved by substitute keeper Kabir.
Pedro Manzi then completed his fourth hat-trick of the league in the first minute of added time. Pandiyan broke away on the right and delivered a cross towards goal and Manzi, ever present at the right place, struck his left foot out to beat Thapa on the near post.
However, Neroca seemed to have other ideas and were not going down without a fight as they struck early in the second half through substitute Felix Chidi.
Chencho played Chidi inside the box from the left in between two defenders. Chidi controlled, rounded the keeper and slid the ball with his left boot into the empty Chennai net for his sixth goal of the league campaign.
Another wonderful move initiated once again by Aryn Williams from the right, saw Chidi’s header just go wide of the goal from close. Neroca was building good pressure now and after two successive corners, got their second through Chencho.
Singham Subash crossed it from the right flank, which was brilliantly headed back by Katsumi towards a lurking Chencho. He controlled and drilled the ball past Kabir was his second goal in as many games in his second stint with the Hero I-League after being the star last season.
He then missed the chance to draw level after a defensive error saw him one on one with Kabir, who brought up a brilliant save to deny the hosts.
Just when Chennai seemed to come shaky at the defence seemed to have scraped through for a win in this game, Neroca struck back through Aryn Williams in the additional time (90’ + 1’) to bring the score to 3-all thereby denying the visitors a chance to walk with all the three points.
The game ended with both Neroca FC and Chennai City FC sharing a point each from the thrilling 3-3 draw.