I-League: Title in sight, East Bengal, NEROCA FC eye three points
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I-League: Title in sight, East Bengal, NEROCA FC eye three points

With the I-League heading for a photo-finish in a four-way title race, East Bengal will count on home advantage against NEROCA FC in their last-gasp bid to win the elusive trophy on Thursday.

football Updated: Mar 07, 2018 23:41 IST
Dhiman Sarkar
Dhiman Sarkar
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
I-League,East Bengal,NEROCA FC
East Bengal and NEROCA FC will look to win their maiden I-League title on Thursday. (AIFF )

For the third time in four seasons, the I-League will be decided on the last day and for the first time in over two decades since India had a national league, will there be a four-way battle for the title. The I-League may be forced on its last legs but it simply refuses to go gentle into the good night.

“Two new teams are battling for the title with two old teams and that makes it a fantastic league,” said NEROCA FC coach Gift Raikhan. This season saw a 58% surge in attendance, according to a media release from the All India Football Federation on Wednesday, with the average turnout increasing from 6,500 to 10,210. NEROCA FC have contributed the lion’s share with their average being 24,494, the highest of the competition.

(Read | Mohun Bagan face tricky Gokulam Kerala test in I-League title climax)

Two of the four teams in the fray for a maiden shot at being India champions face-off here on Thursday. NEROCA FC --- North Eastern Reorganising Cultural Association --- may not win it but they have already reorganised the established order of the I-League in their debut season.

“We are enjoying this moment. That of being a new club and to have come this far,” said Raikhan.

(Read | Minerva’s rise was necessary for Punjab football, feels Sukhwinder Singh)

East Bengal are unlikely to be sharing similar sentiments. Rescued partially by the opportunism of Dudu Omagbemi in Shillong, they are trying to stay positive. Their taciturn coach Khalid Jamil said as much.

“Let us try for full points and then we will see. Their defence is very good so we will have to improve our conversion rate,” said Jamil who is one win and some favourable results away from being the only coach to win successive I-League titles.

(Read | Erased in 2014, away goal rule makes an Indian Super League comeback)

That NEROCA FC are more rested --- they last played on February 18 and lost 2-3 to Mohun Bagan at home ---- and have a better record away too could be why East Bengal didn’t seem to be in the best of moods. NEROCA FC began with a 1-2 loss to Minerva Punjab FC but have since got 17 points on the road including five wins.

Raikhan said the crowd at home is very demanding, like in Kolkata. They always want us to win and that created a lot of pressure, he said. But if the visitors, who have experienced professionals such as Govin Singh, Sushil Singh, Subhas Singh and Gouramangi Singh have trouble dealing with pressure, expect East Bengal go for the jugular.

Jamil said they could make two or three changes to the line-up, possibly in the defence and the midfield. Eduardo Ferreira is back from suspension and it will have to be seen whether he is paired with Arnab Mondal who didn’t play in the 2-2 draw at Shillong.

First Published: Mar 07, 2018 20:48 IST