I-League: Minerva Punjab desperate to avoid slip-up as title race heats up
Aiming to reignite their title hopes, aspirants Minerva Punjab FC are desperate to avoid a third straight slip-up, as they lock horns with an injury-ravaged defending champions Aizawl FC in the I-League in Panchkula on Monday.
Minerva FC’s head coach Khogen Singh looked composed on the eve of the crucial match, but the pressure is certainly on the home team, having suffered back-to-back reverses in recent weeks after leading the pecking order.
A win against Aizawl FC at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium here will not only help them recover lost ground but will also once again place them in contention for the title in only their second season in top-tier football.
Challengers East Bengal’s 7-1 decimation of Chennai City FC in Kolkata yesterday has left the title race hanging in balance and Minerva Punjab would do well to take a cue from the red and gold’s attacking play.
East Bengal’s victory, the margin of which was the highest for any team this season, brought them level on points with Minerva Punjab, who have played one game less.
Even if Minerva Punjab win both of their next two matches leading up to the final round on March 8, East Bengal can now still take the title race to the last day provided they beat Shillong Lajong away on March 5.
With as many as 10 visiting players ruled out of the game with injuries, Minerva will certainly fancy their chances in their third-last match of the season.
Notwithstanding the defeats in their last two outings, the home side still enjoy the cushion of having a game extra in hand as compared to both East Bengal and the highly impressive debutants Neroca FC.
Asked if that led to complacency, the Minerva camp rubbished such suggestions, saying the players are as focussed as they had been through the league.
“We are optimistic of getting our campaign back on track. We will look to play good football and secure three points from the tie,” Khogen said at the pre-match press conference.
If his players are to translate their coach’s words of optimism into results, they will have to take their chances upfront.
The addition of Ivorian midfielder Bazie Armand in the January transfer window has added spark in the attack, which though was guilty of lacking the finishing touches in recent weeks.
Bhutan national team captain Chencho Gyltshen, Minerva’s attacking lynchpin, will be keen to regain his scoring touch and is hoping that he would be fed well by those playing behind. He will once again look to form a potent partnership with Ghanian attacking midfielder William Opoko.
Providing deliveries from the wings and middle of the park and anticipation skills from the strikers will be key to Minerva’s fortunes.
On the other hand, Aizawl FC are currently placed sixth in the 10-team standings and though the mid-season replacement of Portuguese coach Paulo Menezes with Santosh Kashyap did not yield immediate results, the northeast side got back to winning ways with a 3-0 drubbing of Indian Arrows in its last outing.
The result helped Aizawl stave off relegation fears. The Reds, who triumphed in only their maiden season with a measly budget of Rs 2 crore, are tipped to replace Kareem Nurain with seasoned Nigerian and former Dempo FC striker Edeh Chidi. Kareem is one of the many Aizawl players to have been ruled out due to injuries.
Afghanistan international Masih Saighani, who is also a doubtful starter, adds to Kashyap’s problems, else he could have played a crucial role in manning the Aizwal backline and thwarting the likes of Chencho and Opoko.
However, Kashyap put up a brave face and said his players would look to capitalise on Minerva’s sudden dip in from when they meet in the afternoon clash.