Wednesday, February 28

Dhangadhi and Lalitpur aim to win the battle of characters in NSL finale

Sudesh Baniya, Kathmandu

Despite the differences in their campaigns, both Ian Gillan and Yugal Kishor Rai agree on how today’s final will be decided. It will require a mix of individual characters, tactical adaptions, and hunger. The verdict: hungrier boys will win.

Dhangadhi FC face Lalitpur City FC in the final of Nepal Super League’s second edition on Saturday, which is delicately poised with both sides coming off tight, yet morale-boosting wins. While Dhangadhi’s quest to better stinging finale defeat in the first season will have a thrust of being better prepared with the extra days following their win over Pokhara Thunders on Monday, Lalitpur come to their first finale bruised, but confident.

“I’m not making excuses,” Lalitpur’s head coach Gillan said. “The turnaround time is just too short. I’d have liked a little but more thought to have gone into this. It is like an emergency ward up in the hotel rooms.”

It will require more adaptation for his side than their opponents on the field, especially following multiple missouts via injuries and suspensions. They will be without Bibek Poudel and Roshan Pahari through injuries while Indian midfielder Nikhil Kadam will not be in the final after his red card against Pokhara Thunders in the Qualifier 2.

Lalitpur’s campaign, however, has been about perfecting those tweaks, which ultimately seemed to have happened in the playoffs, securing two required wins to punch the ticket to the final. With just two wins and a dingy loss against Kathmandu Rayzrs to end the league stage, Lalitpur’s realized potential seemed unmet.

On the contrary, Dhangadhi FC’s tournament so far has been a mix of all emotions. Bolstered by three wins and four draws, the team suffered one, albeit a disappointing 2-0 loss against Jhapa. The clutch occurrence, however, happened precisely at the time it was required the most – coming from behind twice in the qualifiers against Pokhara Thunders. It required two saves from Mohamad Taha – one being a failed attempt at Panenka to get them over the line.

Now, Rai says it will be a “tough vs. tough” on Saturday. After all, what he and the skipper seemed to nod in unison was that the side’s “luck” came at the cost of tough grind – something that Rai has credited his players with throughout the tournament.

“Character,” he said when asked about the decisive factor. “Of course, individual excellence is needed but individual and team character will be very, very important. The character the team shows when they wake up when the players come onto the pitch matters.”

That is where Dhangadhi’s coach thinks the battle will be played ahead of the tie that could chase the ghosts of the first season’s finale loss away. Although it is set in stone that the 120 minutes of gruesome peddling that 10-men Lalitpur – after two games in three days – will take a toll on the physicality, it has also toughened the men in yellow’s opponents in Rai’s eyes.

“They have played a lot recently- it will be their third match in five days. Despite having a small recovery time and being down to ten men, the way they played, led, and won, not only in physicality, but the character they showed, was brilliant,” he added.

That rings true when it comes to the days that Lalitpur have been at their best, both on the muscle and the intent. The two league wins against Butwal Lumbini and FC Chitwan were convincing enough to pit them as one of the tournament’s contenders, the eliminator win against Kathmandu Rayzrs all but confirmed it.

“I think we’ll do well,” Gillan said when asked about how the side will fare. “We have been patchy but we’ve played well at the business end of the tournament and played a couple of different formations.”

Captain Ananta Tamang agreed, admitting the “problem in communication” at the backline has now long gone and the side is now set to take on the breakneck intensity. The schedule, however, was a sign of worry for him, hoping the “concerned ones will address” the fixture congestion.

On Saturday, it will be Ananta leading his improved backline – not excused by the side’s injuries and suspensions – against the duo of Olawale Afeez and Ahmad Hijazi who have netted 6 of Dhangadhi’s 9 goals so far in the tournament.

On the other side, coincidentally, it will be the opposite captain Devendra, in charge of stopping the 7-goal duo of Imoh Ezekiel and Papa Ibou Kebe if the side are to prove their mettle one final time. An expected full house will witness which captain fares in the battle of two seemingly “tough, eager, and attacking” sides in the finale.

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