I-League: Minerva Punjab FC clinch first title with win over Churchill Brothers | football | Hindustan Times
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I-League: Minerva Punjab FC clinch first title with win over Churchill Brothers

The I-League title was Minerva Punjab FC’s to lose, but their 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers in Panchkula on Thursday ensured the tournament saw a new champion for the second year in a row.

football Updated: Mar 08, 2018 23:37 IST
Ashutosh Sharma
Minerva Punjab became the first team from the state to win since the tournament was rechristened as I-League.
Minerva Punjab became the first team from the state to win since the tournament was rechristened as I-League. (AIFF)

William Opoku’s 15th minute strike took Minerva Punjab FC to their maiden I-League title in their second season in their top flight with the 1-0 win over Churchill Brothers at Panchkula on Thursday dashing the hopes of other challengers. (Match highlights)

The I-League title was for Minerva to lose, and victory ensured the tournament saw a new champion for the second year in a row, Aizawl FC having won last year.

Minerva’s win meant the other two matches -- Mohun Bagan drew with Gokulam Kerala and East Bengal were held by NEROCA FC after simultaneous kick-offs -- did not have a bearing on its title hopes.

NEROCA FC finished second, Mohun Bagan third and East Bengal fourth in the 10-team competition. Churchill, who ended ninth, were relegated. Though Indian Arrows, All India Football Federation’s developmental team, were last, they are protected from relegation.

It was another high for Punjab football as Minerva became the first team from the state to win since the tournament was rechristened as I-League. JCT (Phagwara) had won the inaugural edition of its precursor, NFL (National Football League), in 1996-97.

After a stutter in the business end of the league, Minerva Punjab FC managed to turn on the heat against struggling Churchill Brothers.

NERVOUS START

Minerva were nervous to begin with but soon settled into a nice rhythm. With Gagandeep Bali missing, William Opaku started as a left winger and his pace troubled the Churchill defence. Up front Girik Khosla and Chencho Gyeltshen kept Churchill on their toes.

Minerva dominated the early exchanges, creating pressure. Akashdeep Singh’s effort in 10th minute went just wide with Chencho’s shy at the goal also blocked.

With pressure mounting, it was Churchill’s defensive lapse that helped Minerva go ahead.

Churchill defender Visalie Mezhu failed to clear a long ball and Khosla made a fine run behind the defenders. His shot was blocked, and Chencho’s attempt off the rebound was saved by Churchill custodian Ricardo Cardozo, but Opaku was at hand to control and tap in.

With Churchill behind, it was their turn to press forward but the Minerva defence was alert to the challenge. Onyeama Okechukwu made a fine run, but his effort was deflected by a diving Kiran Limbu.

Things threatened to turn ugly as Guy Dano and Okechukwu had a heated exchange. With the other players also jumping in, the referee had a hard time in controlling the situation. Both Dano and Okechukwu later picked up yellow in quick succession after that, Dano for an illegal challenge and Okechukwu for attempting to shoulder charge keeper Limbu after he collected the ball.

NO I-LEAGUE TROPHY

Minerva coach Khogen Singh was gushing, terming it a success for the team.

“Very happy, the success I think is a team’s effort. Everyone did it. Players were dedicated and gave their best. Struggles and mental and physical load did play a role but in the end we won.

Khogen Singh though was disappointed the I-League trophy was not in Panchkula for his team to immediately celebrate with.

“We are not a famous club. The boys did well to soak up the pressure. But it’s a little disappointing that the I-League trophy is not here.”

Churchill improved in the second half and came close on a couple of occasions, but Minerva survived.

“A silly mistake cost us the goal. In the second half, we came well but chances were missed but things didn’t go as per plan. Way forward, we will look to qualify for the Super Cup. Also next course of the action will be decided in Goa,” Churchill coach Alfredo Fernandes said.