The I-League title race is down to the most dramatic final day in the competition’s history with as many as four contenders, across three matches, seeking a coronation to remember.
The title looked wrapped up a few days ago but leaders Minerva Punjab’s shocking defeat to Chennai City once again left the race for the silverware tantalisingly poised.
On the eve of the last round matches, Minerva Punjab FC lead the chasing pack with 33 points, even as East Bengal slipped to fourth (30 points) behind Neroca FC (31) and Mohun Bagan (30).
All these four teams are in with a chance and play their respective matches simultaneously.
East Bengal will count on home advantage against Neroca FC in their last-gasp bid to win the elusive trophy. On their part, Neroca, yet another surprise package form the Northeast after Aizawl FC, have defied expectations to come this far.
Minerva Punjab host Churchill Brothers in Panchkula and Mohun Bagan face Gokulam Kerala in Kozhikode with permutations and combinations certain to come into the picture.
Read more: Detailed scenarios of the I-League finale.
East Bengal can lift their maiden I-League title if they manage to beat Neroca FC and hope that both Minerva Punjab and Mohun Bagan lose their respective games.
But it’s advantage Minerva Punjab who need only a win to seal the deal, failing which they will have to depend on favourable results from the other two matches. Second-placed Neroca FC can lift the trophy in their debut season in case they manage to earn a win against East Bengal and pray that Minerva Punjab do not pick up three points against Churchill Brothers.
Mohun Bagan shot back into contention thanks to Minerva Punjab’s slip-ups lately. A win on the final day against Gokulam Kerala away could see them being crowned champions, if other results go their way.
If three teams finish on 33 points, then Mohun Bagan will lift their second I-league trophy as cumulative points collected from four fixtures will be taken into account.
Nothing to lose for Churchill, history for Minerva
Minerva are the only team amongst the four who don’t depend on any other outcome to triumph the league if they secure all three points against the Red Machines.
Meanwhile, they hold a slender chance to win the league with a draw or worse, given that other two outcomes in Kolkata and Kozhikode go accordingly. It will also be a do-or-die game for Churchill as they battle for survival in the top division of Indian football.
Churchill Brothers are currently sitting on 17 points with one match left and anything less than a win can’t avert the peril for the Goan outfit. The away team coach Alfred Fernandes said that this match is crucial for the future of Churchill as well as Minerva.
“It’s a very important match for the team. For Minerva its a do-or-die match to win the I-League and for us also it’s a do-or-die match for survival in the I-League. It’s a tough match and whoever will take their chances, will come out as winners. It’s all about keeping yourself cool and expect a very tough match,” he said in the pre-match press conference.
Fernandes also mentioned that a new era in Indian football beckons where new clubs are taking over the legacy.
“Earlier, the legacy clubs were walking away with the honours. Now it’s good for Indian football that smaller clubs are fighting neck-to-neck with the clubs. Only Indian football will benefit from this,” he added.
Minerva head coach Khogen Singh simply believes that his side needs to focus on their game rather than keeping an eye on other two matches.
“We don’t need to think about others, we have to just concentrate on our game. We have to win our game. Our aim, our objective, our motto is to win the match. If we win this match, we will end up as the winners,” Khogen said.
Bagan eye miracle of sorts
“This match here will be the toughest out of the three. Gokulam are a very good side,” claimed Sankarlal Chakraborty, the head coach of Mohun Bagan.
“I always tell the players to focus on the match but not on the title. We prefer to go match by match and it’ll be same tomorrow. The aim is to win maximum points. Then, God knows what is the situation.”
Having had a turbulent season full of ups and downs, Bagan head coach knows that there is pressure to win.
“If you play or coach at a club like Mohun Bagan, there will be pressure. All over the world, the big teams have pressure,” he conceded.
Sankarlal also believes that their opponents are a side full of potential capable of beating any team on their day.
“I am not surprised (by Gokulam Kerala’s results). When Gokulam beat us at home, the press and supporters expressed that it is unfortunate that Mohun Bagan lost. But, they are one of the best teams in the league,” he said.
“After they beat us, they beat East Bengal and Minerva. They beat all the championship contenders. That means they have the potential. They have a very good defence. They are a very young side and now are in a very good condition. Winning matches have put them in good stead.”
A win for Bagan and favourable results in other two matches which are scheduled to kick-off at the exact same time will get them past the glorious finish line but their opponents know a thing or two about causing upsets.
After defeating Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Minerva within the space of a week and rightly earning the tag of ‘giant-killers’, Gokulam are hoping to end their debut season in I-League strongly.
They are currently seventh on the table with 20 points from 17 games and a win against Bagan will secure the sixth spot, displacing Shillong Lajong (22 points) and giving them a direct entry to the final round of the Super Cup.
“A win is a must for us tomorrow to play Super Cup. It is a super climax in I-League. Relegation battle for Churchill, super six battle for Gokulam and four other teams playing for the title,” head coach of Gokulam Kerala Bino George said.
“Mohun Bagan is a big team but for us, we will play with our heart especially tomorrows game. We are very well prepared, all of them are fit.
Gokulam’s seven-game unbeaten run was brought to an end by Aizawl FC in their last game which ended 1-3 in favour of the defending champions.
Since their defeat against Gokulam on February 12 at their home, Mohun Bagan have registered three successive wins.