The fate of the South Indian side will be decided by reigning champions Minerva Punjab, while the Kolkata-based outfit will face Gokulam Kerala.
It is not quite a fight until it goes down to the last round, isn’t it? For the followers of the I-League, that has been the case for the last four seasons and this campaign is no different either. The forerunners of the race are East Bengal and Chennai City, thus making it a clash between a historic institution and one built on modern and cutting-edge management principles, at least to a certain degree.
Interestingly, the fate of the eventual champions will be in the hands of the defending champions this season. Minerva Punjab, the winners of last season will be taking on Chennai City at the Coimbatore Stadium on the final day. At the same time, East Bengal will face Gokulam Kerala away in Kozhikode.
Champions-elect Chennai City should have sealed the deal a few weeks ago, but they have only themselves to blame for letting the Kolkata outfit catch up with them. However, as a neutral fan, one simply cannot complain about having such a nail-biting finish to the league. It was, after all, recently named by Fox Sports Asia as possibly the most competitive domestic league on the continent.
What is the mathematics going into the final day?
As it stands, Chennai are atop the league table with 40 points from 19 games. East Bengal are a close second, securing 39 points from the same number of games. It is a nail-biting situation, especially as the former will be taking on a struggling Minerva side at home, while the latter will have to play a relegation-safe Gokulam Kerala away from home.
As such, East Bengal have no other option but to win their match against Gokulam and pray that Chennai either lose or draw against Minerva. That is the only way the Red and Gold Brigade can end their 15-year long wait for a league title. A draw for EB and a loss for Chennai would do them no good either, as the head-to-head is accounted for in case of two teams having the same number of points in the I-League. Having lost to the South Indian team in both games this season, East Bengal face the more daunting hurdles in the final lap of the league race.
What are the odds for Chennai City?
Despite collapsing in spectacular fashion against NEROCA FC and Churchill Brothers, Chennai are still in the driving seat with regards to the title race. Their Spanish contingent has been in fine form throughout the season and is functioning even better with the pressure of the chase on them. Of the 45 goals that Chennai has scored, 37 have come from the trio of Pedro Manzi (20), Sandro (9) and Nestor Gordilla (8).
Chennai have been exciting in attack, with the defence being prone to errors
It is in their defence where Chennai are suspect and that has cost them points in recent weeks. The likes of Gaurav Boda, Mauro Boerchio and Edwin Vanspaul, who have been impressive throughout the campaign, have succumbed to silly errors which have led to goals. This aspect of crumbling under pressure will definitely concern manager Akbar Nawaz, who has a monumental task to prevent his team from self-imploding, as they did against Churchill last week.
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Minerva Punjab are never easy to play against. They may have flattered to deceive this term, but they were brilliant against East Bengal on the last matchday. They were unlucky to lose, but one can be certain that they will put up a resilient fight against Chennai and make life as hard for Nawaz and his men as possible. For the Southerners, it will be more of a battle of nerves than that of skill.
What are the odds for East Bengal?
The Red and Gold Brigade have been guilty of losing steam like in the previous season, that being justly summed up by the fact that they were in the reckoning for the title in three of the last four campaigns on the final matchday, but ended up shooting themselves in the foot. This season, however, the Kolkata club has shown maturity and it seems there is a chance that the culture of “bottling the league” might just change.
Of course, the loss against Chennai City away and dropped points against Churchill Brothers at home means that they do not have their fate in their own hands. But, manager Alejandro Menendez has done a great job in revamping the squad’s morale, as was shown in the feisty manner in which his side registered wins over Real Kashmir and Minerva Punjab in the last two matchdays. The form of Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and striker Enrique Esqueda will provide a lot of confidence to their fans, who will be desperately hoping for their team to somehow nick the title and end the drought.
East Bengal will be counting their luck ahead of the upcoming title-deciding gameweek
It will be interesting to see how Gokulam Kerala play. For, the Kozhikode-based side have no real motivation left in the season anymore, having secured safety from relegation only in the last round with a massive win over Aizawl FC.
To sum it up, both the sides have their flaws and strengths, but with the title up for grabs all notions of “what can be expected” goe out of the window. It is still Chennai’s crown to lose. However, the neutrals will be expecting another memorable matchday in what has been an outstanding I-League season so far.
May the best team win!