In a tussle of exuberance and experience the end result is very rarely a split verdict. But then sometimes even the latter can flinch at the death and if the former has the composure to take advantage of the mistake then exceptions are possible.
Thursday turned out to be one such day when the experienced Mahindra United winked for just enough time to give Churchill Brothers an opportunity to score. Nigerian Odafe Onyeko Okolie accepted the invitation with open arms, helping the promoted outfit to hold the defending champions 1-1 on their home turf in the 11th ONGC National Football League at the Cooperage stadium.
The 79th minute strike cancelled out Ghanaian Andrews Mensah’s 38th minute goal and left the Red Devils ruining an opportunity to take pole position in the standings after two rounds. Instead, the IFA Shield champions share the top spot with Churchill with four points but could be overtaken by citymates Air-India and Mohammedan Sporting of Kolkata, if they win their second round encounter on Friday.
In fact, the defending champions could have come under early pressure had Churchill’s Nigerian George Ekeh kept his cool early on. Just two minutes into the game, Mahindras defender NP Pradeep completely missed the flight of a clearance by Churchill defence and Ekeh had just the goalkeeper to beat. The striker did manage to beat the onrushing Sandip Nandy but the ball was just wide.
But once the Mahindra players settled down they started controlling the pace of the game with skipper Yusif Yakubu and Mensah beginning to weave a web around the Churchill defence. The pressure paid off as playmaker James Singh found Mensah with a pinpoint pass and the Ghanaian showed great touch in controlling the ball before tapping in over Vinay Singh.
The young Churchill players were once again caught off guard in the injury time with Yakubu allowed to enter the box unchallenged but luckily for them the striker’s right footer sailed over the cross bar.
But if one expected Churchill to wilt under the pressure then they were mistaken. Coach Karim Bencharifa went for broke and threw in an extra striker after the lemon break and the move began to show results as Mahindras were forced to go on the backfoot.
Okolie got his first chance in the 58th minute when he dribbled past two defenders before unleashing a low right footer but failed to get the better of Nandy. Despite the pressure, the hosts were still favourite to come away with all three points as the young Churchill players were unable to keep possession and even committed some silly mistakes at the back.
However, it was Mahindras turn to do the same — 11 minutes from time — when right wingback Surkumar Singh was caught out of position and Chandam Singh broke the off-side trap with ease to collect the through ball and lay it off for Okolie to score his third goal in two matches in this tournament.
Mahindras coach Derrick Pereira said failure of his team to keep possession in the second half cost them two points. “Surkumar had got a knock on his ankle just before that goal. But it was a lapse in concentration that cost us,” he said.
Bencharifa was very happy with the way his players handled the pressure in the last 10 minutes. “In the Durand Cup and also in the Federation Cup we conceded late goals and that cost us the match,” he said.