Sandesh Sigdel, Kathmandu
In an outing outlined by comebacks, Dhangadhi FC eclipsed Pokhara Thunders 4-3 on penalties in the first qualifier to mark their place in the final of the second edition of the Nepal Super League. Dhangadhi came back from a deficit twice in the match to force a penalty shootout and come away with a win.
Pokhara were clearly instructed by their head coach, Nabin Neupane, to exploit Dhangadhi’s high-line tactics by playing the ball over the top and that is how they went ahead in just the fifth minute of the match. Stephan Annor’s long ball was met by Moses Gyabba on the left flank, who then played a cross into the box. Dipesh Ale Magar, in his attempt to guide the ball towards the goal, deflected it towards Ayush Ghalan who was lurking at the far post to hand his side the lead.
Pokhara were vividly the dominant side in the first half, often coming close to one another. Dhangadhi goalkeeper Mohammad Taha had to bail his side in the eighth minute when Ghalan’s cutback to Dipesh Ale Magar was hit straight at him.
Moses hit his first real attempt on goal in the 18th minute wide of the post. Taha got his hand to a Joe Aidoo free-kick in the 31st minute and guided it towards the post before gathering a rebound from Moses. Before that, Narendra Chaudhary had to block an Ahmad Hijazi header on the goal line.
The second half, on the other hand, had a different story to tell. Dhangadhi were the better side and had the better chances. Richard Agyemang struck the crossbar in the aftermath of a corner in the 47th minute while the headed rebound from Olawale Afeez was gathered by Pokhara shot-stopper Yves Priso.
In the 54th minute, however, Dhangadhi found the back of the net. A short corner resulting from a save brought out by Hijazi from Priso was played shoer to Kamal Shrestha. Kamal’s delightful cross was met by his skipper, Devendra Tamang, to bring his side back into the game.
Dhangadhi kept on creating chances after the equalizer but failed to pounce on them. Hijazi failed to keep a free header off an Aashish Chaudhary cross in the 60th minute on target and blasted it over the bar.
Pokhara had their chance to go ahead for the second time in the match in the 72nd minute but center-back Franklin Talla failed to guide the ball into an open net from the edge of the six-yard box.
At the other end, Priso denied Olawale from close range off an Abhisekh Gurung cross in the 79th minute. Taha was equalling Priso’s heroics at the other end, the best save of the match coming from the Lebanese goalkeeper in the 83rd minute to deny Joe Aidoo’s header.
The added thirty minutes of the match also brought twists and turns in the match. It was Pokhara who struck early in the extra time as well. After a series of saves from Taha to deny Dinesh Rajbanshi, Franklin Talla rose to the occasion to find the back of the net. Pokhara, who had thought they found the winning goal, had to deal with yet another setback- this time in the final minute of extra time.
Ram Chandra Wajee’s floated delivery over the top was met by Hijazi but his first attempt was blocked by Rajbanshi. However, he found the back of the net in the second attempt to take the match to penalties.
Pokhara had a clear advantage midway through the shootout as well. After three penalties were taken each, Dhangadhi’s Ahmad Hijazi was denied by Priso while Pokhara had scored all three. However, Moses and Ayush were denied by Taha in the next two while Dhangadhi’s Aashish Chaudhary and Devendra Tamang converted their kicks to put their team in the final.
Dhangadhi will contest Saturday’s final but will need to wait until at least Thursday to find their opposition. Pokhara, on the other hand, will have one more shot to make their place in the final. They will take on the winners of the match between Kathmandu RayZrs and Lalitpur City FC in the eliminator tomorrow to test their luck in the second qualifier on Thursday.