Right after Minerva clinched their I-League match against newcomers NEROCA FC in the last week of January, it was pretty clear that the Punjab side's chances of winning the title depended largely on the two upcoming matches against East Bengal. The first game ended in a 2-2 draw and the second one – played on Tuesday at the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula – saw East Bengal nailing a deserving 1-0 victory. Fair to say that Minerva's chances of lifting the trophy have been dented, but all hope is not lost.
After 14 matches, Minerva are still on top the league table with 29 points, followed by NEROCA, who have played a game more and are on 28 points. Khalid Jamil's East Bengal have played the same number of matches as Minerva and are just three points behind the leaders.
Before Tuesday's match, East Bengal were six points behind Minerva. So it would have been anybody's guess which team needed a win desperately. And Jamil's men played a desperate brand of football, with intent and desire on an atrocious pitch, putting up with terrible misses and refereeing blunders. At the end, victory came thanks to Cavin Lobo's thunderous strike from outside the box in the 60th minute.
Making one change from their last match against Shillong Lajong, Minerva brought in Souvik Das in place of defender Abhishek Ambekar while East Bengal were bolstered by the return of their talisman Mahmoud Al Amna. Jamil also replaced Ansumana Kromah and Mehtab Singh with Arnab Mondal and Yami Longvah.
East Bengal were the dominant side right from the start. Minerva manager Khogen Singh would have expected that. So his players were content sitting back and defending. As expected, the first real chance belonged to the Red and Golds in the 33rd minute. Dudu Omagbemi collected the ball from Al Amna on the right and delivered it down the middle to Longvah, who had only the goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar to beat. However, Longvah messed up his shot and his weak effort was blocked by Dagar. Seconds later, Jamil took off Longvah and introduced Kromah in the match, and East Bengal were looking more threatening going forward.
In a season where refereeing has made all the wrong noises, Tuesday's match was no different. In the 40th minute, Minerva's Bazie Armand pushed Kromah from behind in the penalty box, but the referee did not point towards the penalty spot. Soon after the break, the referee's was again oblivious to a clear hand ball from Minerva's Eric Dano in the box, who had his hands stretching behind to a cross from Laldanmawia Ralte. East Bengal players appealed furiously but to no avail. Moments later, the decision not to award the penalty would have turned the game when Bali Gagandeep got the best chance to put the hosts ahead. His powerful shot was palmed away by Ubaid CK, who would go on to have an excellent game.
The deadlock was finally broken thanks to a spectacular strike by Lobo on the hour mark. Dagar couldn't have done much to save the shot. Right from the moment Lobo unleashed his right-footed shot, the ball was always going to find the back of the net. East Bengal thoroughly deserved their lead.
The goal resulted in Minerva players waking up from their slumber. Khogen, rather bizarrely, made a goalkeeping change, bringing in Kiran Limbu for Dagar. After East Bengal's goal, Minerva took charge of the game, searching for the equaliser. There was another instance of hand ball where East Bengal's Katsumi Yusa had his hands raised at the edge of the Minerva's penalty box, but the referee, showing consistency, said no to a penalty call.
Minerva's star Chencho Gyeltshen, who was AWOL for majority of the match, sprung into action in the 72nd minute. Ubaid, once again came to the rescue of his team, diving to his left and saving a Chencho's half-volley. Five minutes later, Chencho made another effort to level the score when he beat defender Eduardo but was denied again by Ubaid. Minerva's relentless pressure almost paid off in the 85th minute when William Opoku got a golden chance to become a hero for his team, but his header to a wonderful cross from Chencho went wide.
For the team from Punjab, there weren't many opportunities to score after Opoku's miss. East Bengal held on to the lead and ensured they went away with all three points.
Before the start of the season, Jamil's team were one of the favourites to win the league. The management made sure the coach got the right of kind of players and despite an uneven start to their campaign, the team is still in hunt to win their first I-league title.
The battle for the trophy looks to go all the way this season. Jamil was in similar situation the last time around, with his team Aizawl FC staying in the contention till the last day. Playing against Shillong Lajong in their final match, Aizawl drew the game 1-1 and became the champions. East Bengal might also have to face something similar in the coming few weeks. Their last two matches are against NEROCA and Lajong. But with Jamil in their ranks, along with the quality of players they posses, they certainly have it in them to become league champions.
Minerva, on the other hand, showed again on Tuesday that they are fallible. The tactics of allowing East Bengal to dominate in the first half backfired on Minerva. Defensively, Khogen's side was supposed to be very reliable. However, since their win against NEROCA, they haven't kept a single clean sheet in their past four matches. Maybe the team is feeling the pressure of maintaining the top spot in the league. Maybe they had hit the peak a little too early. But still it is their title to lose. With four matches to play against the likes of Gokulam, Aizawl FC, Chennai City and Churchill Brothers, Minerva will try to be on the winning side in at least three of those games.
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2018 20:22:21 IST