Imphal: Aryn Williams’ 86th minute strike not just sealed a vital 1-0 win for Neroca FC but also spiced up this season’s I-League battle as the debutants pipped Minerva Punjab to the pole position at the Khuman Lampak Stadium here on Wednesday.
Following the victory, Neroca ran two points clear of second-placed Minerva Punjab at the top. But the Warriors have played 14 games, two less than the league debutants.
Just below them lie East Bengal who seemed to have peaked at the right time. The Red and Golds have 26 points after 14 matches, which has somehow turned the I-League into a three team battle.
But if recent performances are to be taken into consideration, Manipur’s Neroca stand as East Bengal’s greatest threat in lifting their maiden I-League title, even after 10 years of playing in the top-division of Indian football (the NFL was renamed into I-League in 2007 and since then it has been India’s top-division League).
In huge contrast, both of the Red and Gold’s direct title rivals Minerva and Neroca are virtually new to the League. While Minerva debuted last year, Neroca was promoted to the top-most division after winning the 2nd division I-League.
But despite setting the early pace of the league with nine consecutive undefeated matches, Neroca looks the be the least favourites to win it. They have won three, drawn one and lost two in their last six and although this can be taken as a satisfactory result, it is their two remaining matches that can well kick them out of the league competition.
The ‘People’s Club’ next face both the Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in their remaining two fixtures. While they take on the Mariners at home, it will be their encounter against the Red and Golds away from home that may be the title deciding battle. Bagan meanwhile irrespective of their poor performances at home are still unbeaten on the road and will be eager to play a spoil-party.
Similarly, Minerva Punjab have won three, drawn one and lost two in their last six encounters. One of those two defeats came against East Bengal, who have also held the ‘Warriors’ to a 2-2 draw. But what favours Minerva in the battle for championship is their remaining matches.
In their last four games, Minerva face Gokulam, Aizawl FC, Chennai City and Churchill Brothers and they play three of those four matches at home. Interestingly, the title-aspriants have beaten three of their next opponents in an earlier fixture, with Churchill being the only opposition to beat them.
The hot favourites to win the title are however Kolkata giants East Bengal. The eight time Federation Cup winners have lost just twice this season, both coming in the Kolkata derby against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.
In their last six games, East Bengal have drawn three, won twice and lost just once. Both the two wins have come in the last two matches. They like Minerva have four games remaining, but given the way they have been playing all season it might just be enough to carry them to their maiden I-League title.
The Red and Golds next play Gokulam, Chennai City, Neroca and Shillong Lajong, with two of the four matches being at home. They have also scored the highest no of goals (21) and conceded just 13, which is the third lowest.
Neroca eke out a win
It was Aryn Williams who earned Neroca a hard-fought 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers that still kept them in the reckoning for the League title.
Until Williams’ goal both sides were guilty of squandering some easy chances and the match looked destined to end in a stalemate.
With their coach Gift Raikhan asserting that Neroca will stop at nothing less than a win, the home side began in a attacking note and should have gone ahead as early as the second minute had Churchill goalkeeper James Kithan not been alert enough.
But despite numerous such attempts, Neroca could not beat Kithan’s presence at goal and it was only Williams’ powerful strike that fetched them a win. Receiving Saran Singh’s cross in the visitors’ box, the midfielder chested it down before firing one past the custodian to set the stadium blazing with happy chants.