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I-League 2017-18: Minerva Punjab FC clinch maiden title courtesy William Opoku's goal on thrilling last day of season

Dilip Unnikrishnan
Firstpost

Minerva Punjab won their first I-League title after beating Churchill Brothers in the last game of the season. By winning the league, Minerva also became the first North Indian side ever to win the I-League since its inception in 2007. The result also meant that Churchill were relegated to the I-League second division.

Going into the last day of the season, four teams €" Minerva Punjab, NEROCA FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal €" had a shot at winning the title. However, Minerva fought off Churchill Brothers' challenge to cap a memorable day for the Punjab side.

Minerva coach Khogem Singh opted to go for a fluid front three of Chencho Gyletshen, William Opoku and Girik Khosla and the trio was a handful for the Churchill defence throughout the match.

Players of team Minerva Punjab FC celebrate after winning 1-0 against Churchill Brothers. AIFF

Players of team Minerva Punjab FC celebrate after winning 1-0 against Churchill Brothers. AIFF

Minerva had their first chance of the match when the excellent Akash Sangwan got the ball at the far post but his shot was saved well by Churchill keeper Ricardo Cardozo. Minerva deservedly got the lead in the 15th minute when Opuku slammed the ball in the back of the net from close range much to the delight of the home fans.

Churchill's defence, which has been conceded the most goals this season, was at fault again as a mix-up between Meitei and skipper Osagie Monday allowed Chenco to run at goal and shoot. Cardozo couldn't collect it properly and after Khosla's shot was blocked, Opuku was at hand to give Minerva the lead.

Churchill barely threatened Kiran Kumar Limbu in the Minerva goal and their rare forays in the attacking third were dealt with by the Minerva defence. Former East Begal striker, Willis Plaza, who was signed by Churchill in their bid to avoid the drop barely had a sniff at goal. The defensive pairing of Eric Dano and Sukhdeep Singh were quick to close down and deservedly came away with a clean sheet.

Minerva continued to attack and Opuku could have ended the half with a hat-trick but for some good goalkeeping from Cardozo.

In added time, Minerva broke quickly through Girik who had the vision to spot Opuku's run but the Ghanaian couldn't get his shot past Ricardo. A minute later, he did well to beat Churchill's offside trap but his shooting let him down once again.

Despite leading at half-time, Minerva knew that any lapses in concentration in the second half would allow NEROCA, who were leading 1-0 against East Bengal, to leapfrog them into pole position.

Minerva started the second half well and almost grabbed a second goal but Opuku couldn't direct his header towards goal from a long throw. Four minutes into the second half, Chencho rose the highest to meet an Sangwan corner but his header flew inches wide of the post.

Churchill, who had to win to stay in the league, started attacking more in the second half but they were let down by some poor finishing. A rare lapse in concentration by the Minerva defence allowed PM Britto the chance to equalise at the near post but his shot was straight at Kiran.

Kiran, however, presented Churchill with their best chance of the day at the hour mark. His clearance was hit straight at Churchill's Israil Gurung who found Dawda Cessay at the edge of the box. Cessay got away from a Minerva defender with a clever drop of the shoulder before unleashing a curling shot which kissed the crossbar on its way out. That was as close as Churchill came to get a goal and barring another good save from Britto five minutes later, Kiran Kumar had nothing else to do as Minerva held on to win.

As referee Rahul Gupta blew the whistle for full time, the Minerva bench, led by owner Ranjit Bajaj, rushed on to the pitch as Minerva created history by becoming the first North Indian side to win the I-League title. For a second season in a row, a team who were nowhere in the title contention at the start of the season, have ended up as I-League champions.

Also See: I-League final day, Highlights: Minerva Punjab defeat Churchill Brothers FC 1-0 to win their first title

I-League 2017-18: Chennai City FC pull off stunning win over table toppers Minerva Punjab

I-League 2017-18: NEROCA FC coach Gift Raikhan feels team has proved they belong to top division

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