Ludhiana: The Indian Women's League 2019 is over and Sethu FC emerged champions continuing a brilliant run for Tamil Nadu teams, started by Chennaiyin FC in the Indian Super League last season and extended by Chennai City in the I-League this year.
Manipur Police took the lead through Radharani Devi at the Guru Nanak Stadium in Ludhiana while Sethu responded in the second period through an Umapati Devi own goal and two strikes from Sabitra Bhandari to run out 3-1 winners.
Bala Devi, scorer of 26 goals throughout the tournament, would not score another in the final but finished as top scorer while Sandhiya Ranganathan from the champions was adjudged 'Player of the Tournament'.
Sethu started well and fashioned several openings for Sabitra and co to exploit. Panthoi Chanu in the Manipur goal received little help from her defence but held firm to keep Sethu's quartet of attackers out.
Sandhiya, guilty of spurning a gilt-edged chance, would see most of the play directed towards her on the left wing with the pace of Dangmei Grace on the other wing proving useful, if not a direct threat to stretch the play.
Manipur Police's non-existent midfield was over-run by Sethu's pace on numerous occasions and proved to be their eventual undoing with Indian international Indumathi Kathiresan keeping the play ticking over for the Tamil Nadu club.
The Police had a claim for a Sethu player to be sent off when Bala Devi was brought down on the edge of the box when seemingly through on goal, only for referee Phurki Lhamu Bhutia to wave play on. Bala, top scorer in the tournament with 26 goals, cut an isolated figure as Sweety Devi expertly marked her more experienced state-mate out of the game.
A moment of contention came halfway through the first half when Bala was brought down by Ashalata, who was the last defender and the Police team appealed for a red card. Surmala Chanu, Police's coach made her displeasure known post-match stating that the refereeing had not been up to the mark and that her team could also have had a penalty for a lunge on Daya Devi in the second half.
Daya, pushed forward to add more firepower to the Police attack, was unable to influence the game as much as her counterparts on the other team as the occasion seemed to get to her. The wingers, Promeshwori and Mandakini Devi, so immense in the semi-final against Gokulam, were unable to provide Bala the service that she had fed off the entire tournament.
On the stroke of half-time, the Police took the lead through a fine header. A corner, played short, found its way to Radharani Devi, who made no mistake with the header. Coming in for the suspended Romi Devi, the defender had made her presence count.
The Police, despite being not up to scratch, had taken the lead as Sethu struggled in their midfield battle. "They were playing 3-5-2 and we saw that there were large gaps in the midfield which we could exploit. That was the message at half-time to my team and they followed those instructions," said Amrutha Aravind, Sethu's coach.
Sethu's half-time team talk though seemed to re-energise them. Ashalata spoke about the support that the senior centre-backs had given the younger full-backs and it paid off. Juki Pushpanathan and Muthu P had kept Mandakini and Promeshwori quiet and launched a counter-attack that ended with Grace swinging the ball in for Kathiresan to take it first time as Umapati could only turn it in to her own net.
The momentum was now fully in Sethu's corner and their Nepalese striker 'Sambha' Bhandari ran at the Manipur defence with only thoughts of 'shoot!' in her head. "My confidence was low after the first half as Manipur had contained me well but I thought I would have a go in the second half," said Bhandari after the match.
Set free on goal, the Nepalese number 9 ran through on goal, rounded the keeper Panthoi Chanu and rolled it into the net from an angle. Sethu had the lead and Manipur had the panic, as the roles were reversed spectacularly.
Sandhiya's run down the left opened spaces in the Manipur defence, which allowed Bhandari to drift into the channel and fire her second past Chanu to effectively seal the game for Sethu.
Manipur rolled the dice by throwing on additional striker Laxmi Devi but the game was long gone by then, as Sethu celebrated a first Indian Women's League title.
Roll of honour:
2017 " Eastern Sporting Union (Manipur) 2018 " Rising Student (Odisha) 2019 " Sethu FC (Tamil Nadu)