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I-League: Top Four Teams Vie For Title On Final Day

Thursday, 8 March 2018|Akarsh Sharma

After over three months of toil, the battle to win India’s national football league, the I-League, is going down to the wire. Heading into the final round, four clubs, namely Minerva Punjab FC, NEROCA FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, are in the running to be crowned the new champions of India.

On Thursday, three matches in Chandigarh, Kolkata and Kozhikode will kick off at 3 PM and will determine the winner of the I-League. The scenarios are as convoluted as they are exciting.

With fate in their own hands, Minerva (32 points) are aiming to achieve a remarkable title triumph in only their second top-flight season. For them, the equation is simple: beat relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers S.C. at home and lift the trophy. A task that is easier said than done for a side that has been dropping points for fun in the last five weeks. After suffering only one loss in their first 11 matches of the campaign and opening up what seemed to be an unassailable lead, Minerva have lost four of their last six to allow title rivals in with a chance. Churchill might sit second from bottom in the league table but are unlikely to be pushovers with their top-flight status on the line. After an erratic season, they must beat Minerva to avoid relegation and the club’s desperation is evident in the signing of former East Bengal striker Willis Plaza for just this final game.

Should Minerva fail to win, the I-League opens up with many possibilities. Debutants NEROCA (31 points), the first top-division club from Manipur, can then win the title by beating East Bengal in Kolkata. It is a scenario that hasn’t been played up enough since NEROCA last played a match 18 days ago and because East Bengal have the best home record (one defeat in eight). NEROCA, though, have the second-best away record in the league, winning their last three away games and having kept six clean sheets in eight away trips.

Until Monday, East Bengal (30 points) had destiny in their own hands before a 2-2 draw away to Shillong Lajong damaged their hopes and brought Khalid Jamil’s tactics into question. It was the fourth time in the season that East Bengal had surrendered a lead by siding with caution. Now, the Kolkata club must beat NEROCA and hope that neither Minerva nor Bagan (30 points) win. This is because if two or more teams finish level on points, the I-League considers the head-to-head results between those teams. East Bengal have a better head-to-head record against Minerva (a win and a draw) but lose out on head-to-head against Bagan (two defeats).

Bagan’s final-day scenarios are the most complex. It must beat newcomers Gokulam Kerala FC in Kozhikode and hope that one of these two scenarios play out: Minerva lose and NEROCA don’t win or Minerva draw and East Bengal triumph. In the second scenario, Minerva, East Bengal and Bagan will finish on 33 points each in which case Bagan will be crowned champions by virtue of topping the ‘mini-league’ formed by the head-to-head results of all the matches between these three teams. Bagan are the league’s best travellers (unbeaten on the road with five victories), while Gokulam have earned the tag of ‘giant killers’ and have already beaten Bagan earlier this season. It’ll be a challenging task for the Kolkata club to eke out a win.

All this leaves us with a fascinating final two hours of the 2017-18 I-League. Who will be crowned the champions of India? It’s anybody’s guess. But, as it has been for most of this season, the title is Minerva Punjab’s to lose.


Final fixtures (3 PM, Thursday, 8th March):

Minerva Punjab vs Churchill Brothers (Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Chandigarh)

East Bengal vs NEROCA FC (The Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata)

Gokulam Kerala FC vs Mohun Bagan (EMS Corporation Stadium, Kozhikode)