The Coimbatore-based outfit did it the hard way coming from behind to beat Minerva Punjab on the final matchday.
“They must see where they were six months ago and where they are now,” quipped Akbar Nawas in the pre-match press conference ahead of this side’s penultimate title-deciding fixture against reigning champions Minerva Punjab. Retrospecting about what the Singaporean tactician had said, it is true; the South Indian club have come a long way since finishing in a measly seventh place at the end of their 2017-18 campaign.
The Coimbatore-based side have finished off an excellent season with the much-coveted I-League trophy in their hands. Although, they could have sealed the title a few days ago, a loss to Churchill Brothers, added suspense to the race, with East Bengal putting in resurgent displays to reach the second spot. Ahead of their respective final encounters, Chennai City led the pack with 40 points, with the Red and Gold Brigade being a point behind. With an equal number of wins in their kitty, the only difference between both the sides was a single point.
Before kick-off, one thing was right away known, both sides needed to win! East Bengal needed to edge past Gokulam Kerala. Meanwhile, the Pedro Manzi-led side had to beat their Chandigarh-based opponents. A loss for Chennai and a Bengal win, meant the title would go to the Eastern Indian state. A win for Chennai and a Bengal win (or loss) meant the title went to the South Indian state.
Gaurav Bora (#13) scored a brace against Minerva Punjab on the final day of the I-League
Chennai started the fixture with some pressurizing moves in the opening seconds, but then a shock goal from a Roland Bilala header wasn’t expected. The Ukrainian striker scored via an excellent Juan Quero free-kick. Meanwhile, East Bengal started pretty well, with Jaime Santos attempting a deflected effort.
Within the first 10 minutes, Sandro Rodriguez and Pedro Manzi began to reignite Chennai’s title dreams, with some slick moves in the middle of a crowded Minerva half.
Midway through the first half, surprisingly Minerva had an equal share of the ball as Chennai. The hosts looked sloppy, while the visitors were more comfortable in possession. Also, the FC Basel co-owned side were sloppy with the final ball, angering the likes of Sandro and Manzi. Meanwhile, in Kozhikode, it was turning out to be a cagey encounter with scruffy play from both the sides; with Marcus Joseph testing Rakshit Dagar after getting the better of Costa Rican Johnny Acosta.
Gokulam’s Fabian Vorbe and Arjun Jayaraj were a dominating presence in the middle of the park, keeping the likes of Lalrindika Ralte and Santos quite in the opening 45 minutes.
In the 40th minute, Minerva could have got a second goal, creating a well-worked move in the final third. Mahmoud Al Amnah drifted in a brilliant cross which had all the ingredients, but Roland messed up the connection and couldn’t divert the header towards goal. Meanwhile, just before the interval, Nestor’s absence became more and more visible, as Chennai failed to threaten the rock-solid Minerva backline and lacked the final ball.
Pedro Manzi’s equalizer helped Chennai City to make a comeback against Minerva Punjab (File Photo)
When the half-time whistle was blown, the title race had two different stories. At the EMS Stadium, it was turning out to be a rather cagey encounter which promised a dull affair and could possible lead to a goalless draw. At the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Minerva Punjab were playing according to their gameplan and walked happily towards their dressing room. It was pretty obvious that the North Indian side had planned to score an early goal and then defend deep; mission accomplished!
Alejandro Menendez began the second half by playing his first card; bringing in Samad Mallick for the Jalpaiguri-born Manoj Mohammed. In the meantime, Minerva missed a chance in the 50th minute to extend their lead. Makhan Chothe put in a clever cross for Quero, whose poor control wasted the opportunity. Edwin Vanspaul put in a brilliant curling long-ranger in the 53rd minute, which rattled Nidhin Lal’s post.
After the Vanspaul effort, Minerva played their first trump card; bringing in Sreyas V.G. for goalscorer Roland. Immediately after the substitution, Akashdeep Singh committed a handball which truly reflected his side’s campaign this season and referee Santosh Kumar rightfully pointed to the penalty spot; and guess what, Manzi comfortable scored his 21st goal of the season, turning the tide in his side’s favour, just like he has done always. Captain Dependable! Captain Marvelous!
Fast forward to the hour mark in Coimbatore. Ajithkumar Kamaraj put in an excellent cross which floated past everyone and landed on Manzi’s head, but he just couldn’t direct it towards goal. With only half an hour left, Lalrindika Ralte produced a screamer at the EMS, which almost went in, with Arnab Das Sarma standing helpless.
Laldanmawia Ralte was arguably East Bengal’s best player on the pitch against Gokulam Kerala
After the equaliser, Chennai City began to gain control of the game and started to dictate proceedings with Minerva relying on clearances and long balls.
The last 20 minutes of this title race bought a mix of spice and drama. In Kozikhode, Joseph proved his talismanic presence, with a forward-like goal, slotting it past Dagar in the 70th minute. Just before Gokulam’s goal, Chennai found a second via a brilliant corner by Sandro, which Gaurav Bora thumped into the net to make it 2-1.
Santos converted a spot-kick in the 79th-minute for East Bengal, making it 1-1, to keep them in the title race, little realizing that their lack of creativity and invention would cost them the crown. Hoping to finish things off, Nawas bought on Vijay for Jesuraj and the substitute almost had an instant impact, but failed to find the killer pass.
While Chennai were leading, Laldanmawia Ralte raised his side’s title hopes again, with the scruffiest of goals, giving East Bengal the lead against Gokulam. The Mizo midfielder’s first header via a Santos cross didn’t go in, but his awareness led to a rebound, making it 1-2 for his side.
Sreyas almost sent Chennai’s title hopes down the drain, with a rebounded snapshot which went wide, not troubling Mauro Boerchio much, who was stuck in the middle of a scramble in his own area due to a Minerva corner.
Just as East Bengal wrapped up their win over Gokulam, 20-year-old Bora found the back of the net via a screamer in the fourth minute of second half injury-time, sending the spectators in Coimbatore into raptures. The Pune City loanee’s goal sealed the title for Chennai and won him the Hero of the Match award. What a story for a 20-year-old youngster from the far reaches of Northeastern India, deciding the I-League title race with two thumping goals.
Let’s not discredit East Bengal too. The Kolkata-based side really took the title race right to the scruff, overtaking the likes of Real Kashmir and Churchill Brothers. Jobby Justin wrote his name in the Indian football history books, with some excellent goals, while the likes of Didika Ralte and Enrique Esqueda also helped the Quess-owned side’s cause.
Whatever Nawas wanted to do, he had made it clear when the season started, and he has achieved it with his brilliant footballing style, helped by his Spanish imports. Congratulations Chennai City! What a story for a side who were in the bottom half of the I-League table last season!