I-League 2018-19 Team Profile: Minerva Punjab
Written by: Atrayo Bhattacharya
The Warriors will have an uphill task trying to retain their title having lost many of their key players from last season.
Minerva Punjab won the much-coveted I-League title last season, becoming the first team from Punjab to do so after more than two decades. Last year, the competition was very tight towards the end and there were 2-3 teams eyeing the crown. But, the Warriors found their way after being table-toppers for most of the proceedings.
So, here is a sneak-peek at how the club are preparing themselves before the new battle of the upcoming season and to find out whether they can live up to the expectations and defend what rightfully belongs to them Let's have a look at the strengths and weakness of the reigning champions and figure oiut how far they can they go this season:
Last Season's Performances
Minerva Punjab were definitely not the favourites from the start, but as the league went on, the Warriors looked more and more formidable. A shrewd tactician in Khogen Singh and a passionate owner in Ranjit Bajaj clearly justified what the I-League triumph meant for them.
Although, they were table-toppers for most of the time in the league, it was still very tight till the last matchday. Ultimately, it was William Opoku's winning goal against Churchill Brothers which secured all three points for the northern club and also the prestigious title for the first time in their history.
The Chandigarh-based club featured in the Punjab Super League and as expected they defeated Punjab Police in the final to win the state silverware. Then the Warriors played in the All Indian Independence Cup, where they were knocked out by a spirited Mohammedan Sporting in the semi-finals.
According to the club's new technical director Paul Munster, the Warriors have a stronger team than last season
Minerva Punjab also played two friendlies with NorthEast United and Delhi Dynamos. The Warriors ended the games with a narrow defeat and a high scoring 3-3 draw respectively. They are now travelling to Jammu and Kashmir to play the J&K Invitational Cup.
It's a new coach at the helm of Minerva Punjab this season, Sachin Badadhe who was the assistant coach last season will take charge from Khogen Singh. His story from being a tea shop owner to become the head coach of Minerva Punjab is a very inspiring tale for all the budding aspirers in the field of Indian football.
The young Indian coach will be well assisted by new technical director Paul Munster. The 36-year old Northern Irish tactician will bring valuable experience with him during his time of managing youth teams across Europe. He was also former Slavia Prague forward and will look to assist Sachin Badadhe and physiotherapist Karuna Kant Gupta to rewrite history and defend the title for the Chandigarh-based side.
Minerva Punjab have always been known for their amazing youth academy and shrewd scouting policy. The club hosts trials all over the country and have nurtured a lot of proven talents in Indian football. It was obvious that after their title-winning season, players were going to move for greener pastures elsewhere, but the defending champions have given their academy stars a chance to shine.
Gradually things started to fall into place as they secured the signature of Japanese striker Yu Kuboki and young midfielder Philip Njoku, who was plying his trade in Finland's top division. Aimable Nsabimana, the young Rwandan became their first defensive recruit this season.
Coming to the Indian signings, a lot of homegrown players left the club and Minerva have primarily promoted talented youngsters from their academy and retained the ones who have been loyal to the badge.
All eyes will be on former Fateh Hyderabad midfielder Hitova Ayemi. The lad from Nagaland promises to impress in the upcoming season. Another talented ambidextrous winger Dilliram Sanyasi has joined from Hindustan FC, alongside experienced campaigner CS Sabeeth, who dazzled in the I-League 2nd Division for Ozone FC. Versatile defender Mohammad Irshad as well as midfielders Liandala Fanai and Kerala-born Akhil Praveen have also joined the fold. Moinuddin Khan who was snapped up by Mohun Bagan failed to impress Sankarlal Chakraborty with his performances in the CFL and as a result, he has rejoined Minerva Punjab.
Most of the first -team from last season left for better opportunities, as some of them joined the Indian Super League, while others swapped clubs within the I-League.
Defenders Sukhdev Singh and Abhishek Ambekar left for Mohun Bagan, whereas Bali Gagandeep Bali, Rakshit Dagar, Kamalpreet Singh and Kassim Aidara joined East Bengal. Last season's star Chencho Gylteshen was snapped up by ISL side Bengaluru FC, whereas youngster Girik Khosla was roped in by NorthEast United. Academy graduates like Jeakson Singh and Anwar Ali were also snapped up by Kerala Blasters and Mumbai City respectively.
The players who have left Minerva Punjab this season are:
Chencho Gyeltshen (FWD), Rakshit Dagar (GK) Kiran Limbu (GK), Kassim Aidara (MID), Bali Gagandeep (FWD), Sukhdev Singh (DEF), Kamalpreet Singh (DEF), Girik Khosla (FWD), Jeakson Singh (MID), Anwar Ali (DEF) Lago Bei (FWD) Guy Eric Dano (DEF).
Goalkeepers: Bhaskar Roy, Arshdeep Singh.
Defenders: Akashdeep Singh, Deepak Devrani, Nikhil Pal, Aimable Nsabimana, Arashpreet Singh, Saurabh Bhanwala, Mohammad Irshad.
Midfielders: Akhil Praveen, William Opoku, Philip Njoku, Prabhjot Singh, Hitova Ayemi, Amandeep Singh, Souvik Das, Liandala Sena Fanai.
Disclaimer: This is not the full squad. The club is yet to confirm the registration of certain players and are in doubt with some as well. Will update the full list once the club gives us a green signal.
Formation and Tactics
Amandeep Singh and Philip Njoku are expected to anchor the midfield
The reigning champions are a very powerful side and most of their prowess lies in the attacking third. The Warriors look menacing with the likes of in-form star Kuboki and experienced Indian forward Sabeeth, along with last season's consistent performer Opoku. So, technical director Paul Munster may opt for a conventional 4-4-2 formation or a balanced 4-2-3-1.
Arshdeep Singh and Bhaskar Roy will fight for the spot between the sticks. Deepak Devrani and Akashdeep Singh remain undisputable first-team defenders. Versatile defender Md. Irshad will also be a crucial player as the league goes on. Rwandan defender Nsabimana will spearhead the backline, whereas the energetic Philip Njoku will anchor the midfield.
Opoku can slot in as an attacking midfielder on either flank, while players like Dilliram Sanyasi, Akash Sangwan and Souvik Das will battle it out for a first-team place. Kuboki will be the main man in attack, shouldering the responsibility to find the back of the net consistently, with his sharp movements and goalscoring ability. Sabeeth will look to continue his good form for the Warriors.
Minerva will be very dangerous from set-pieces. They also have enough depth in the attacking third. The experience of Manandaeep Singh and the youthful exuberance of youngster Makan Winkle Chothe will look to add a unique panache to the side going forward.
Their biggest strength is their attack. The reigning champions have a formidable attacking lineup and on top of that, they are very unpredictable. The Warriors are known for making stars and players like Sanyasi, Ayemi and Chothe may seize this opportunity to put the limelight on them. Their attack will be lead by Kuboki of Japan, who has shown his mettle in the pre-season games for the Warriors. The Japanese forward has also donned the armband for the club in pre-season matches and will be a very important player for Minerva this season.
Minerva defeated Punjab Police in the final of the Punjab Super League
Last season's star performer Opoku will also be a threat for any opposition with his decisive attacking runs and goalscoring prowess. The Ghanaian scored five goals last season, along with two assists and will look to do the same, if Minerva want to have a go at retaining their title.
The team lacks experience on the whole. Players like Aimable and Njoku are new to Indian football and they will need time to adapt to the conditions, though a prolonged pre-season should help. Moreover, although most of the players are from their academy and have known each other for years, they lack the experience of playing in the top flight.
The team is also very young, with an average age of around 21-22 years. Hence, it will be interesting to see how a young set of players along with their young coach, handle pressure as the league progresses.
For a complete list of all the fixtures, click here.
Players to Watch
Yu Kuboki: The former Sydney Olympic striker is very energetic and decisive with his forward runs. He tries to get into pockets of space left by defenders in the final third and can be very dangerous from those areas. He has already proved his mettle in pre-season matches and will look to carry forward the same form in the I-League. The 28-year-old is also a leader by trait and has donned the captain's armband several times in pre-season. His goalscoring prowess will be very crucial for the Warriors this season.
William Opoku: The Ghanaian midfielder was a crucial part of Minerva's success story last season. Opoku scored five goals last season and assisted twice in the league. He also scored the decisive goal against Churchill Brothers to seal the league title on the last day. He is someone who will orchestrate the attacking movements and create chances while moving forward.
Aimable Nsabimana: The 21-year old central defender is the first Rwandan to play in India. The lanky defender is decisive with his tackles and game reading and will look to spearhead the Minerva backline this season.
What to Expect
After a historic triumph, it will be a daunting task for the Warriors to replicate something like that this season. For example, Aizawl FC who won the I-league two seasons ago, failed to keep up a similar pace last campaign, finishing fifth in the league table. Similarly, it will be a very tough season for Minerva this time out, as they look to defend the title.
While some of the other clubs have invested heavily to revamp their squads for the new season, Minerva Punjab always look to rely on their academy graduates and promote their youngsters into household names. This route worked for the Chandigarh-based side last season, but only time will tell whether it will work again this term.
Published: Fri Oct 19, 2018 07:17 PM IST