As the I-League nears its completion, Minerva Punjab appear favourites to clinch a first-ever title. They would become the first North Indian club after JCT in 1996-’97 to win a national league title.
Defending champions Aizawl are sixth, 12 points behind the leaders in what has been a season of attrition for the Mizo club. Neroca are the surprise package in second, having trailed Minerva for most of the season but the race seems to be almost won for the Punjabi club.
What was supposed to be a procession for the two Kolkata giants has been anything but, with the two clubs third and fourth, cutting sorry figures in a season that they were supposed to dominate.
A look at some key statistics from this season so far:
Arrows score and concede a lot in the last 15 minutes
Abhijit Sarkar’s late winner meant that Churchill Brothers were defeated 2-1 – the Indian Arrows no 9 scored two late goals to give Luis Norton de Matos’ men a crucial victory in their bid to not finish bottom of the table.
Out of the 11 goals that Arrows have scored, 64% or seven of those have come in the last 15 minutes. That puts them way ahead of the rest, in terms of percentage of goals scored in the same period. Neroca come next with 38% (six of 16 scored).
In terms of goals conceded, Shillong Lajong and the Arrows both let in a league-high 41% in the last third of the second half. Lajong have been especially dire, letting in the same number of goals (9) in the last 15 minutes, as Neroca have in the entire duration of the league.
East Bengal’s obvious set-piece problem
In the summer, East Bengal recruited Eduardo Ferreira from their city rivals but it hasn’t helped the defence one bit as they have failed to keep out the set-pieces when it matters, including both the Kolkata derbies.
In the first derby, Kingsley Obumneme’s header handed them a 1-0 defeat while Asier Dipanda Dicka scored a wonderful volleyed goal to put the game beyond them in the second.
They have now conceded a whopping 62% (8 of 13) goals from set-pieces, while conceding the lowest (5) from open play. Aizawl and Neroca have let in only two goals each from dead-ball situations while the Indian Arrows are the only team not to have scored any set-piece goal.
Minerva’s route one football
The league leaders have played the direct-to-goal football that Chencho Gyeltshen, William Opoku and co. have used to threaten opposition defences over the course of the season.
They have dispensed with the passing niceties, averaging three minutes of possession lower than the next highest, Churchill Brothers. With the league average standing at 25 minutes, Minerva have been happy to let opponents have the ball, averaging only 21 minutes and 31 seconds every game.
The I-League’s passing accuracy average stands at 77%, but Minerva Punjab average 38 passes lower than the Indian Arrows in ninth. Aizawl FC complete on an average a century of passes more, registering 366 completed passes per game to the Punjabi club’s 260. It must also be noted that Minerva play the lowest number of non-forward passes, 52 per game, to Aizawl’s 117.
Minerva also have the longest pass lengths, averaging 21.1 metres per pass. A lot of the Chandigarh-based club’s attacking play comes down the flanks, primarily through Chencho and Abhishek Ambekar on the left, averaging a league-second 3.2 counter-attacks per game.
Michael Soosairaj and Samuel Lalmuanpuia could do with some help
The Chennai City and Shillong Lajong club captains are possibly two of the brightest talents still remaining in the I-League. Michael Soosairaj and Samuel Lalmuanpuia are also two of the most overworked captains in the league, shouldering the burden of the attacking play for their respective teams.
In what has been a torrid season for both teams, the central attacking midfielders have led from the front and sit first and third for most number of passes put into the box this season. Soosairaj, 23, in particular has been outstanding but under-rated and leads the league in challenges, dribbles and lies second behind Chidi Edeh for attacking challenges.
‘Samuela’ as the Lajong skipper is also known, at 19 is the league’s second-youngest captain - only Amarjit Kiyam of the Arrows is younger, naturally. Amidst a mass exodus of Lajong players to the Indian Super League, the No 9 has been pivotal to their forward play in a topsy-turvy season.