CONIFA 2018: the semi-final rundown and looking ahead to the final

CONIFA 2018: the semi-final rundown and looking ahead to the final

Northern Cyprus will play Kárpátalja in the final of the CONIFA World Football Cup after a dramatic day in Carshalton. Two barnstorming matches were decided by brilliant individuals, with Billy Mehmet and Gyórgi Toma inspiring their teammates to a maiden final.

In the early kick off, the favourites to win the competition faced off. Padania were the tournament’s top scorers, with Giulio Valente scoring four of his team’s 17 strikes. Nothern Cyprus, meanwhile, had shown their own merits in the quarter-final mauling of Barawa.

Both sides began cagily, with Padania sitting deep to combat the pace and guile of Mehmet in attack. Northern Cyprus made their intentions clear immediately, combining well offensively and being marshalled superbly by captain Serhan Önet at the other end. Arturo Merlo’s side could barely breathe, pinned down in their own box by their opponent’s rabid  press.

Ten minutes before half time, however, disaster struck. Collecting the ball 30 yards out,  Giacomo Innocenti played a marvellous through ball to Riccardo Ravasi, who made no mistake from inside the box. Against the run of play, Padania had taken the lead.

The celebrations didn’t last long. Six minutes later, a careless pass from the Biancocrosciati ‘keeper set Kenan Oshan away on the left flank. His cute low cross eventually found its way to Mehmet, who steadied himself before firing a clean finish into the net. 1-1.

Both sides appeared reluctant to surge forward, exchanging sideward balls as they waited for openings to appear. Eventually, it was Padania who took the lead once more, with Innocenti tucking home from a neat-cutback two minutes after the restart. As the drums and horns beseeched from the stands, Northern Cyprus turned the screw. Despite the scoreline, Bülent Aytaç’s side had been far more impressive. Were they about to crash out?

With 10 minutes to go, Halil Turan gave them the answer they craved. Reacting quickest to Marco Murriero’s brilliant save, the number 10 nodded home from two yards as the entire bench engulfed him on the sidelines. Penalties loomed, right up until Uğur Gök was released on the left flank. Closed down rapidly by two defenders, he somehow managed to scoop a reverse into Mehmet’s path; 3-2, game-over, and Northern Cyprus were through.

At first, things were far more sedate in the evening kick off between Hungarian diaspora sides Székely Land and Kárpatalja. For the first half hour, the only drama was provided by the organiser’s announcement that they had run out of cheese rolls.

With a dairy disaster unfolding off the pitch, Székely Land stuck to the task on it  settling into their pressing patterns and spooking their opponents into several turnovers of possession. Kárpatalja could scarcely get out of their own half, as the side in sky blue looked to nab an early opener.

By the half hour mark, however, the side from Ukraine were slowly beginning to assert themselves. A dominant spell of possession would have its reward on 36 minutes, with Toma scoring of the goals of the tournament to give his side the lead.

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Receiving the ball 30 yards out, the dimunitive midfielder evaded one challenge before dancing through two more as he galloped into the box. With Barna Nágy scrambling out to meet him, the 22-year-old slid a delicious finish underneath the ‘keeper’s body and into the bottom corner.

Székely Land should have had an equaliser almost immediately. Carsten Ramelow lookalike Csaba Czismadia lofted a fabulous ball through to his teammate, who was scythed down by goalkeeper Béla Féjer before he could get a shot away. Referee Mark Clattenburg needed no time to deliberate. Penalty.

Unfortunately, Barna Bajkó couldn’t convert the spot-kick, with Féjer tipping the ball on to the post before it was cleared to safety.

Székely Land started brightly in the second half, but their failure to capitalise on that pressure soon proved to be costly. With 59 minutes played, Toma fired a drilled low shot straight into Nágy’s arms. The young keeper could only parry the ball into his own net, much to the digust of his teammates.

The game became stretched as Székely Land searched desperately for a way to reduce the deficit. Even the flares, released midway through the second half, couldn’t inspire them beyond the grizzled Karpatalja backline.

After 71 minutes, the impressive Toma escaped the attentions of the Székely defence once more. As he bore down on Nagy’s box, however, a desperate defender brought him down inside the penalty area. The defender’s punishment would be two-fold. After being carried off the pitch injured by his teammates, he could only watch as Gergő Gyürki stroked home from 12 yards.

At this point, Székely Land could have been forgiven for throwing in the towel. With 77 minutes gone, however, a flighted cross from the left found their captain unmarked.  Czismadia planted a fine header into the net. 3-1. A minute later, the crowd began to believe. A melee in the box sent the ball out to Bajkó, who smashed in a rollicking half-volley from all of 20 yards. 3-2.

Székely Land humped and harried  in the last 10 minutes, but to no avail. With ninety seconds remaining on the clock, a bobbled cross was fired dangerously into the Kárpátalja box, only for it to roll harmlessly out for a goalkick. Just before full-time, they received a kick in the teeth that their comeback didn’t deserve. Toma fed a fabulous ball through to Csaba Peres, who sent Nágy the wrong way to seal a 4-2 victory.

The final promises to be fascinating. Northern Cyprus fans alone have requested 5,000 tickets for a stadium that barely holds half that amount. Their supporters have every reason to be hopeful too, because on the evidence of the tournament thus far, their team will go into the match inEnfield as clear favourites.

Aytaç’s side was totally dominant against Padania, who were flattered by luck and a generous scoreline. In reality, Merlo’s men were battered from start to finish, with Mehmet and Erhan in particular looking a class above their counterparts.

Despite their victory, Kárpatalja looked nervous in their semi-final. Were it not for Toma’s brilliance, they might have struggled to penetrate a Székely  defence that was in no mood to be generous. They must hope, therefore, that the Cigánd SE star can replicate his form for the final game, whilst also praying that their opponents are lulled into complacency.  Either way, it should be an intriguing  end to a marvellous competition.

By Chris Weir 

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