Shillong Lajong FC and Aizawl FC played out a blinder of a season finale to the Hero I-League 2016-17, with the scoreline ultimately reading 1-1 at the end of an exhilarating 90 minutes at the JN Stadium here on Sunday evening.
The tournament’s highest scorer Aser Dipanda Dicka scored a brilliant opener in only the ninth minute in front of more than 23,000 fans, but this was reversed by the visitors through substitute William Lalnunfela in the 67th, which ensured that the Mizoram team lifted their maiden I-League title.
The excitement was not over, however, as Dicka could have changed history if only his left-footed shot in second half stoppage time had not met with the upright and stayed out.
Despite not winning the last match of the season for the thousands of Lajong Faithfuls who thronged the ground, the Reds can be immensely proud of their efforts this season, in which they have finished in fifth place, the best result ever for the Shillong club, which has trusted in their Under-22 players, who make up the bulk of the squad.
Redeem Tlang was the provider of Dicka’s goal, sending in a delicious cross from the left flank after finding himself unmarked by the opposition. The Cameroonian striker sucked the life out of the Aizawl fans with his header that struck the crossbar and the ball went down and over the line.
At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Vishal Kaith was called upon to make a couple of early saves when the Mizoram-based team advanced and he repeated that just after the hour mark when a chaotic melee in front of the goalmouth ultimately resulted in the custodian gathering the ball brilliantly to deny the visitors.
A slight mistake from him in the 67th minute, however, allowed Aizawl back in the game, with some miscommunication between him and his defenders, which allowed Lalnunfela to score after the ball came off the left post.
Happy with their one point, Aizawl resorted to trying to hold on to as much of the ball as possible, but this defensive tactic almost resulted in disaster when in second half stoppage time Dicka struck the ball onto the upright, with a mere inch or two deciding the fate of the match and the season. That was quickly followed by a cross into the box and Dicka headed it down for Yuta Kinowaki, but the latter was just a little too far away from the ball to get a touch onto it.
Shillong Lajong, the youngest team in the I-League, finished a commendable fifth place in the table with 26 points from their 18 games.
Speaking at the end of the game, Lajong coach Thangboi Singto described the result as “disapponting” as the target was to win at home, but congratulated the opposition for winning the championship.
“Credit to Aizawl, they were consistent and had the belief in themselves even when a goal down. They are deserving champions. For us, I’m really proud of my team and the future is going to be good for us,” he said. “The atmosphere was terrific today and I’m so happy the Lajong Faithfuls came out in such numbers,” he added.