I-League 2017-18: Minerva Punjab possess right kind of balance to become champions
Certainly Minerva's victory against NEROCA is a big step towards the title but there are few challenges left that they need still to overcome.
When the second half of the match between NEROCA FC and Minerva Punjab got underway at Imphal's Khuman Lampak Main Stadium, one of the commentators wondered whether it was the case of home team playing terribly or their opponents putting up a top-notch display. Former Indian footballer Renedy Singh, who was the other commentator, gave his two cents about the game, saying, "NEROCA have more quality players but Minerva are better organised." The fact about better being organised has been the story of the season for Minerva and no wonder they are the leaders of the I-League, winning eight matches, losing just one and a draw to their name.
Saturday saw Minerva taking on NEROCA, who were second on the table behind the Punjab side. A win for the Manipuri club in front of their home fans would've propelled them to top of the table. But just three minutes into the game, the attacker-in-chief Chencho Gyeltshen took charge of a long throw and came up with a terrific finish to give their team the lead. For the rest 90 odd minutes, Minerva showcased tactical brilliance and ensured they get out of the stadium with three points in the bag.
The win over their Gift Raikhan's NEROCA is not an ordinary one in the larger scheme of things. It's a big statement of intent from Khogen Singh's team that they have got what it requires to go all the way. To be the champions of the league.
As much credit goes to Chencho, also knock as CG7, for turning around things for his team in terms of goals, their defence also deserve similar applause for doing all the dirty job of putting on the tackles, blocking the shot, clearing the ball, and heading away the corner deliveries. Against NEROCA, once again the likes of Kamalpreet Singh, Sukhdev Singh, Abhishek Ambedkar and Eric Dano rose up to the occasion to keep NEROCA in check, especially in the second half.
After Chencho's goal, things went awry for NEROCA. Or at least for their boss. it was only 25 minutes on the clock, when Raikhan, rather bizarrely, took off Israilov Akhlidin for Pritam Singh. Raikhan also replaced Yumnam Gopi for Saran Singh in midst of a dominating first half from the team from Punjab. Two first half substitutions after an early goal clearly showed that NEROCA were rattled. Things improved for NEROCA in the second half as they dominated the proceedings. They gave it all going forward, employing short passes as well as long balls but Minerva's impeccable defence never fluttered. There were few odd chances for NEROCA, the biggest one came in the 90th minute when Felix Odili Chidi collected the ball in the danger area but ended up side-netting it.
Meanwhile, Minerva, despite being showing their defensive solidity in the second half, enjoyed going forward whenever they got the chance. Chencho was relentless in his runs, always trying to find that second goal along with William Opoku. In the end, Minerva managed to hold on to their slender lead to the disappointment of the 17,000 odd home fans in the stadium.
Minerva coach Khogen Singh knew about the importance of the match. Before the start, Khogen said the outcome of the tie will have an impact on the title race. “Tomorrow’s (Saturday) match can be a turning point in the title race so we are prepared. NEROCA are a good team. They are high on tempo but we are hoping to get three points from here.” Not many coaches out there will talk on the subject of title race when there are quite a few matches to be played. Maybe it was part of Khogen's tactic to inspire his players before such a crucial match. Such statements, just before the day of the match, might put pressure on the players. But during the game, Minerva players showed no sings of being under pressure, rather focusing on doing their job.
In a league where clubs struggled with a bout of inconsistency, Minerva's run has been quite exemplary. Minerva's first game in the league was against a tough Mohun Bagan. It looked like they will begin their campaign on a losing note but a 89th minute goal from Moinuddin Khan made sure the game ended in a draw. From then on, Minerva ended up winning four matches on the trot until they suffered a derailment against Shillong Lajong. But after the 1-2 defeat, Minerva again won four matches, this time away from the home, while conceding just one goal.
Minerva's water-tight defence in addition to their attacking prowess portray the ideal balance a football team craves for. It's the kind of balance that can prove to be the difference between others and a club becoming the league champion. Kudos to Minerva for achieving that right balance but they would know that the job's half done.
Certainly the win against NEROCA is a big step towards the title but there are few challenges they need to overcome. Next they will travel to face Khalid Jamil's East Bengal, who have the quality to beat Minerva. There's one more with East Bengal at home beside matches against lowly ranked teams like Churchill Brothers, Chennai City and Gokulam. If Minerva solve the East Bengal puzzle in one of those two matches then they can, maybe, start dreaming about lifting the title.
Khogen Singh has to see to it that Minerva will maintain the consistency over next month and half. And to predict the ultimate outcome, it does look like they will hold on to the lead.
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