An 86th-minute strike by Aryn Williams sealed a vital 1-0 win for Neroca FC over Churchill Brothers at the Khuman Lampak Stadium on Wednesday to take the Manipuri outfit top of the I-League table, making the title-race more intriguing.

The win takes Neroca FC’s tally to 31 points in 16 games whereas second-placed Minerva Punjab FC are two points shy but have the benefit of having played two games fewer. East Bengal have also made a strong comeback into the title-race with their victory against title favourites MPFC, which took their tally to 26 points from 14 games.

On Wednesday, Bishorjit Singh continued in goal for Gift Raikhan’s team due to Lalit Thapa’s long-term injury whereas Felix Chidi was replaced by Nedo Turkovic up front for Neroca while Gopi Singh, Saran Singh and Subhash Singh formed the attacking trio behind the forward.

Monday Osagie and Hussain Eldor continued to form the formidable centre-back partnership for the Red Machines that has resulted in their good run of form since the turn of the year. Kalu Ogba, Bektur Talgat, Nicholas Fernandes and Dawda Ceesay all started the game as Alfred Fernandes went all-out for three points.

Neroca had a wonderful opportunity to take the lead as early as the second minute in the game. Tondonba delivered a good cross into the box from the right which Aryn Williams got his head to within six-yards from goal. However, goal-keeper James Kithan’s fists denied the midfielder the chance to put his team into an early lead.

First-half substitute Israil Gurung caused havoc inside the box soon after coming on when he found Nicholas Fernandes with a cross in the 26th minute. Nicholas cut back a looping ball for Ceesay to head down into the path of Dawda Ceesay whose shot at goal should have hit the net if not for a crucial block by Kiatamba to prevent danger.

A minute later, Fernandes missed a sitter. Britto’s pass had the Churchill winger within three yards in front of goal but the latter opted for an audacious backheel flick that went awry.

At the other end, Williams failed to beat Kithan one-on-one after the midfielder snatched possession from Hussain Eldor at the edge of the box.

Both sides continued to create chances but were unlucky with their finishing throughout the game. Raikhan replaced Turkovic with Sushil Singh mid-way through the second half and Vorbe’s cross into the box presented the substitute with a good chance to head the ball towards goal but his attempt went wide.

Williams finally found luck in front of goal in the 86th minute. Saran Singh’s long ball was chested down by the midfielder before sending an unbeatable effort past Kithan that ultimately sealed full points for Neroca.

Churchill Brothers FC Goa will travel to Coimbatore for Chennai City FC test on 17th February whereas Neroca will host Mohun Bagan in their final home game of the season on the following day.

(Inputs from AIFF Press Release)