A game scheduled to begin at 5:00 PM at the Hasely Crawford Stadium actually got going at minutes to six. Fatima simply could not find it within themselves to bury an all-too-lucky St. Anthony's team in the first game on the match card, and eventually lost on sudden death penalties.
The rain had fallen in torrents during the second half of the first semi-final, and it continued to drizzle as our boys took the field under lights in their white kit. Simba and Aldo started up front, with Jason, Mikhail Awai and Radonfah behind them in the midfield. Tireless Delano 'Gecko' Pierre was running in his favoured wing position. A surprise for me, even though I'd heard that he started in the quarter final game against Morvant Laventille, Thorne was present between the uprights. Notably absent though was Lloyd Sealy, our last stopper and last year's captain, and the little right back whose fearless defensive play I've come to enjoy so much.
I must admit that I was a little worried for our boys. This was the Mucurapo outfit whose speed and spacing had troubled us so much in the second round game on Fatima Ground in similarly wet conditions. Despite early go ahead goals though, our boys' composure was so much and so powerful that it allayed the fears of the crowd and quite possibly threw Mucurapo for a loop.
The boys in the burgundy strip kicked off quickly and charged down the field with a blitzing assault on the QRC goal. The defence was unprepared for such a hurried attack, and Compre opened the scoring in a goalmouth scramble. It wasn't two minutes after this that Compre intercepted a pass in the midfield and charged down the field again, and in what QRC players probably at that point were seeing as absolute chaos,
Compre supporters were jubilant, their team up by two in less than ten minutes. But a game is ninety minutes long, and what took place over the remaining eighty minutes or so puts this game down as one of the classics of secondary school football.
QRC restarted undaunted. No-ones shoulders dropped. There was no sense of nervousness or halting urgency. They were like a machine, unflinching, unemotional, like the two goals that Compre scored were nothing. That had to be confusing for Compre. After all, how does a team down so quickly remain so unfazed, so disaffected?
Within minutes, we got a flash of things to come. Aldo, set free by a pass from the midfield, turned and headed toward the Mucurapo goal, with striking partner Simba on the other side of two defenders. Aldo was eventually shut down, but that burst showed Compre that he was only just getting warmed up and that he needed to be watched.
A minute afterward, Radonfah, realising that he was free, let go a shot from 25 metres outside, but to no effect as it was a little off target. The ball back in play, it wasn't a minute after that that we threatened again with a shot coming in from the left of the 18-yard box, expertly parried by the keeper. The resulting goalmouth scramble ended in a goal kick.
Compre now on the back foot conceded a free kick 30 metres out from the goal. Mikhael Awai stepped up and cracked a shot that sent a shockwave around the stadium when it struck the vee and rebounded into play.
Despite the pressure though, Mucurapo pushed back out using the pace with which they started the game and playing one-touch possession football. Good harassment by Jason and Radonfah eventually dislodged the ball and Aldo was set free again just outside the 18-yard box. With blinding speed and excellent control, he worked his way forward. After wrong-footing one player, and beating another with a change of pace, he was tripped up in the 18-yard box by a rushing Compre defender. Jason stepped up to take a text book penalty, burying the shot in the left corner of the net, sending the keeper diving the wrong way.
Mucurapo restarted quickly again. But Thorne proved up the task of defending his citadel, their quick initial shot parried. The resultant retry was harmlessly hit over the bar. The Compre strategy at this point seemed to be to catch our second string defence napping. Good challenging by Radonfah, Jason and Mikhail in the middle, by Delano on his wing, and Aldo's ever present threat kept Mucurapo honest. In fact, the occasional QRC forays on the Mucurapo goal seemed to unsettle their defence and rattle their otherwise excellent keeper more. Mucurapo continued to push the limits of Thorne's reflexes though, our defence constantly a half step behind the sheer speed of the attack.
It was the QRC Machine though that produced the next goal, and first contender for play of the day. The ball dislodged from the Compre midfield, Aldo was set free again and was fouled some 30 metres out from the Compre goal. Clearly made confident after his first attempt, Mikhail started his run almost on the half line after taking time to survey the distance and confer with his midfield partners. Had the keeper time to get a hand to the ball, that bat out of hell would have broken his fingers and still have enough speed and power on it to hit the underside of the crossbar to slam into the ground just inside the goal. It was the kind of goal that a keeper could only make look better by trying to get a hand to it, and that in doing so would make it certain to be one of the clips in an ESPN ad for South American football. Two-all was the score.
Mucurapo, wounded, pressed quickly again, having Thorne produce a diving save on a free kick and a heartbreaking diffusing of a one-on-one effort by a Mucurapo player. And so scores remained level as the ref blew the halftime whistle.
QRC had the touch to restart, and came out more purposefully. Mucurapo's engine seemed too to have a little less throttle, and their midfield was having more trouble keeping the ball at their now slower pace. It gave our boys another opportunity to pounce on a ball and release Aldo yet again. Bodying off one, dragging another, change of pace throwing off a third, another drag on the original draggee coming back for more, Aldo worked his way quickly into the 18-yard box again, where he was tripped up by a lunging tackle, winning us another penalty. All that Jason's kick was missing was a yellow 'R' flashing on the field, as he produced an effort exactly like his first. He buried the ball in the far left corner, sending the keeper diving desperately to the right. 3-2 was the score to QRC.
You could look at the Compre players' demeanour, their vexation with each other as another penalty was conceded, and the way that they came out to restart the game and know that they were broken. But they weren't shattered. In a foray similar to the one that produced the first goal, a Mucurapo swarm on the QRC citadel generated a goal mouth scramble that produced their third item for the evening.
The goal boosted Compre's confidence a little, and refreshed their hunt for a victory and a place in the North Intercol final. But it did nothing to shut down the Machine, evidenced by another releasing of our danger man and a free kick for the resulting infringement on him. With about 20 minutes to go, the coach pulled out an almost invisible Simba and an exhausted Gecko, injecting Kyle and Chike to augment the attack.
Compre's defence began playing higher and higher as the whole team pushed forward desperately looking for the go ahead and possibly winning item. Midfield play was now pretty much even, and as time wound down, it seemed as if we would be treated to another round of sudden death extra time. But one look at Aldo and you could tell that he wasn't having it. He'd wounded Compre twice before on either side of the half-way whistle, and had made surging runs that helped to provide dead ball situations and opportunities for us. Already again, the boys had sought to set him free and he was caught offside just beyond the half line.
So unnerved was Compre by the QRC attack that their keeper mishandled the ball when the attack rushed him, giving us a free kick on the edge of the 18-yard box. Jason curled the ball over and around the wall, but the shot was safely and brilliantly punched out by the Mucurapo keeper.
Again the opposition came out looking for the decider, and thrust almost all of their players into the attack. On the half line were Aldo and Kyle, shepherded by a Compre player each.
I'm not sure who threaded the ball out of the crowd, but at this stage, it really doesn't matter. Seeing the ball coming, Aldo turned on his man on the half line and gave chase, picking it up two strides later. He bodied his man off and accelerated, drawing the keeper out of his post into a one-on-one. He angled to his right to ensure that he could get into the box and still have some space between himself and the keeper, and then hit him a spanner and a drag that sent him to his knees and scrambling to get back up. By now three defenders had run back into the box and were jostling each other in the Mucurapo goal mouth. The keeper looked frayed, completely thrown by having been so roughly treated by Aldo's footwork. And then, Aldo just stopped dead. He looked up, measured, smiled, and scooped the ball over the keeper, over the defenders, and into the goal. It proved to be a final minute winner, and what a glorious goal it was.
On this day, the QRC Machine sounded a clear signal to St. Anthony's that their North Intercol reign is in jeopardy of coming to a crashing end. We play them in the North final at the same venue on Friday.