Panchkula: On 30 April, 2017, Aizawl FC scripted the unlikeliest of fairytales when they pipped Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan to win the I-League title, in the process also becoming the first team from the northeast to do so. Eleven months on, another bunch of underdogs hope to match Aizawl's achievement and create history in the process.
Minerva Punjab were rank outsiders to win the league at the start of the season with many expecting the Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to fight for the title. However, the Panchkula-based club has shown that it can hold its own against the big boys of Indian football and goes into the last round of matches on Thursday as favourites to win its first league title.
Minerva Punjab FC players during a training session.
Going into the last day of the season, four teams have a shot at winning the title but leaders Minerva, who host relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers, are favourites to clinch the league. They are on top of the league with 32 points, followed by debutants NEROCA FC in second place with 31 points. Mohun Bagan, who travel to Kozhikode to take on Gokulam Kerala are third with 30 points while East Bengal, who host NEROCA, are fourth with 30 points as well.
Minerva could have already wrapped up the league by now if not for some poor performances in their last few games. The Warriors got their season off to a good start with three wins in five matches before going on a strong run of away victories including wins away against title challengers Mohun Bagan and NEROCA.
Key to their stunning title challenge has been the form of forward Chencho Gyeltshen. Nicknamed the Bhutanese Cristiano Ronaldo, Chencho has been Minerva's most influential player this season and his drop in form coincided with Minerva's run of poor results. Nothing more can illustrate Chencho's impact on the team than the fact that he has been involved in 13 of Minerva's 23 goals this season. The Minerva No 7 leads the assists chart with six and is second only to Bagan's Aser Pierrick Dipanda with seven goals.
Sitting comfortably on top of the league with their rivals dropping points, Minerva were expected to win the league at a canter. However, a hint of complacency seemed to have crept into the side as they lost to Churchill and Gokulam and also squandered a two-goal lead at home to East Bengal in their 2-2 draw.
Coach Khogen Singh admitted his players dropped the intensity in the latter half of the season but believes that his relatively inexperienced players have learnt their lesson. "This (losing relatively easy matches) is a symptom of an immature team. Minerva is made of young and inexperienced players and it has shown sometimes. A lot of times players have become over-confident, especially after matches where they have played very well, like in the away matches at East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. They start thinking that 'Oh we are a great team' and that has led to our intensity dropping in matches where we are and should rightfully be ahead," Singh said.
East Bengal's draw with Lajong has handed Minerva another chance to seal the league but it won't be easy against a team fighting for survival in the league.
Churchill hanging on by their fingertips
Like Minerva, two-time champions Churchill have their task cut out for them. Only a win would guarantee safety for the Margao-based club who are ninth in the table with 17 points, two behind eighth placed Chennai City FC.
Ahead of their must-win clash, Churchill coach Alfred Fernandes has warned Minerva that his side will come out with all guns blazing. "It's a do-or-die match for Minerva because they want to win the title and it is a do-or-die match for us because we want to avoid relegation. Tomorrow, the team that takes their chances will emerge victorious. I can assure you that we will not sit back and no quarters will be given as there is a lot at stake for both the teams," Fernandes said.
Churchill have been defensively poor this season and the Minerva attack led by Chencho will be relishing the prospect of having a go at the Churchill defence which has conceded the most goals in the league this season " 27. Khogen Singh's side will be further motivated to avenge their loss to the Goan side in the reverse fixture in February.
The sole North Indian club to feature in the I-League, Minerva hope to be the ones to spark a revolution in the region and inspire the next generation to take up the beautiful game. Khogen Singh believes that fans and pundits need only to look at the impact Aizawl's triumph had in Northeast India.
"I think because Aizawl won the title last year, NEROCA were spurred on to join the league. Luckily, if we win tomorrow, we can inspire other North Indian clubs with passion for football to come up."