Durand Cup winners Services snatched a pre-quarterfinal berth right at the death of their exciting Cluster IV match against Assam on Tuesday.
While both teams had picked up all six points from their two group matches, Services, (with nine players from the Durand Cup-winning Army team) by virtue of their superior goal difference, only needed a draw to go through.
And for large parts of the match, that is exactly what they aimed for - a point. Assam, on the other hand, had everything to play for and came out a positive and determined unit.
The two wingers, Ajit Singh and Thoiba Singh, were a constant menace to the Services defence and put a number of good balls into the centre. Ajit had the first real chance of the game when he broke through the left and found himself unmarked and only the keeper to beat. His shot, however, sailed over the bar.
The till then unflappable Services defence, marshalled by twin, towering centre-backs in PS Sumesh and S Ramesh, were clearly finding it difficult to cope with the nimble-footed Assam players and frequently ended up making last-ditch clearances. At the other end of the field, Services, more often than not, were reliant on the hardworking and hardy Ngurneilal.
The diminutive striker, often left on his own up front, worked his socks off through the match and made do with the crumbs served by his midfielders. He almost broke the deadlock towards the end of the first session with a spectacular volley but only managed to hit the side netting. That was pretty much the story of the first-half - lots of action but no end product.
Assam’s continuing hard work finally bore fruit in the 62nd minute, when Thoiba’s lob from the right flank fell right onto the waiting head of Sanjeeva Rongpee, who made no mistake in making it 1-0, to give Assam a lead they richly deserved. At that point, Services seemed to be on their way out and their strategy of playing for a draw looked increasingly like a fatal error.
But the thought of an early exit seemed to spur them on and Services looked an altogether different unit. And unfortunately for Assam, there was bound to a sting in the tail. In the 93rd minute, Assam failed to clear their lines and a goal-mouth mêlée saw substitute CT Sajith scoring the all-important equaliser to set up an entertaining pre-quarterfinal against Bengal.