Uttam Singh stands just 5 feet 7 inches tall in his football shoes and hardly looks menacing on the field. But that is only till he gets his hands on the ball for a throw-in anywhere in the opponent’s half.
The Manipuri has been Air India coach Bimal Ghosh’s trump card so far, and the 23-year-old yet again proved why, as he set up his team’s winner against East Bengal in the 11th ONGC National Football League encounter at the Cooperage on Sunday. The 1-0 win was also the maiden triumph for the local favourites over the red and gold brigade under Ghosh.
With both teams unable to break the deadlock for more than an hour, Ghosh made a double substitution by bringing in Uttam and Samson Singh. The move turned out to be a masterstroke with the latter finding the net with a fantastic volley in the 71st minute.
Uttam’s throw-in deep inside the box from almost the 25-yard line saw AK Martins rising above his marker to head the ball on the second post and Samson, who has joined the Mumbai outfit from Salgaocar this year, made no mistake in slotting the volley home.
The goal even drew praise from East Bengal coach Carlos Roberto Pereira. “We had trained hard to negate his (Uttam’s) throws but they still managed to wrong foot the marker and then Samson was left free to score,” he told reporters after the match.
Ghosh also saluted Uttam’s ability to create scoring opportunities with his throws, saying he could always trust the diminutive defender to produce a goal for the team. “Now-a-days teams have started preparing for his throws and hence I kept him on the bench till we got desperate,” the Air India coach added.
The victory was a well deserved, with the local outfit dominating the game for long against an East Bengal side that has been struggling with injuries and a lack of potent striker. With defenders Anupam Sarkar and Brazilian Cristiano Hilario unavailable, the Kolkata giants were forced to go in with just two specialist defenders in Shasty Duley and Soumik Deb. Upfront, the two strikers — Kenyan Boniface Ambani and Arata Izumi — also failed to create a quality partnership.
However, the end result could still been a lot different had Izumi and Dipankar Roy found the net when they had the opportunities, but both could only manage to hit the upright. The first came in the 40th minute when Ambani’s long hop fell into Izumi’s lap after being deflected off a defender but his low right footer brushed the outside of the post and went out. The second was in the 67th minute when Santosh Koli failed to properly clear an Alvito D’Cunha corner but Air India custodian Raju Ekka managed to deflect Ray’s right footer on the upright.
These apart, East Bengal’s performance was below par and the team managed to put pressure only in bits and pieces, that too after skipper D’Cunha and Ashim Biswas were brought in in the second half. When asked, Carlos pointed out that both of them were not 100 per cent match fit.
Result: Air India beat East Bengal 1-0.