East Bengal's win against Minerva opens up I-League title race

Seven minutes into injury time, East Bengal striker Dudu Omagbemi play-acted injured after the simple act of kicking the ball. He had no need for the theatrics though. The referee had blown the final whistle, the match ending 1-0 in East Bengal's favour away against Minerva FC.

With remarkable haste, Dudu jumped up off the bumpy turf at Panchkula's Tau Devi Lal Stadium even as several of his teammates fell to their knees, their arms raised high in thanksgiving. Around them, the Minerva FC players headed off the field with their shoulders slumped. They knew just how important this match was. Minerva, by far the most frugally run outfit in the I-League, had been promised a princely bonus by team owner Ranjit Bajaj if they won the game.

They had been top of the table with 29 points in 13 games before Tuesday. A win would have taken them four points clear of NEROCA FC at the top, with a game in hand. On the other hand, a loss for East Bengal would have been catastrophic for their title hopes. A nine-point gap would have been next to impossible to bridge for Khalid Jamil's side with four games to go.

As it turns out, Minerva still stay top of the table, but their grip on the title has weakened. They are just three points ahead of East Bengal and one clear of NEROCA, who have played 15 matches. The race for the I-League title, that could well have been sealed on Tuesday, will now have to be fought perhaps right until the final round of matches.

Minerva coach Khogen Singh blamed his team's lack of fortune. "We played a good match but we were unlucky," he shrugged. There is perhaps some truth to this. Minerva had a penalty call ruled against them. Cavin Lobo, with his first shot on goal in the 60th minute, produced one of the goals of the season from thirty yards out. It was a freak shot and the first time Lobo had scored for East Bengal in a winning cause in five years.

The pitch in Panchkula was exceedingly difficult to play on. It had only been prepared a month before, and two straight days of unseasonal late winter rain had churned the turf into an unstable and pockmarked mire in parts.

Khogen also admitted, however, that Minerva have themselves to blame. They were surprisingly defensive, starting their second half with five defenders. Some of their choices of substitutions were bizarre. Goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar was taken off a minute after conceding and replaced with Kiran Limbu of Nepal. Khogen would say he wanted to keep five foreign players on the pitch but there appeared few genuine football reasons for the decision.

Midfielder Bazie Armand had been included with little other reason than to play mind games with East Bengal who had released him earlier in the season. Just like Minerva, who had a penalty claim denied, the visitors too had had a very strong shout go unheard.

Despite all this, Minerva could still have won or at least drawn. They had four clear chances on goal. Gagandeep Bali usually plays in defence but has played all over the field owing to a knack for finding himself in scoring positions. He found himself unmarked at the tip of a Minerva counterattack in the 48th minute.

His shot was hit too close to CK Ubaid who parried the attempt. Chencho Gyeltshen had two chances on target. He failed to notice the time he had in his first attempt in the 72nd minute and pulled the trigger too soon while Ubaid made a good save in the second seven minutes later.

Unforgivably -- and this is a moment that might be considered tournament defining if the I-League race goes down to the wire -- William Opuku hit a header wide from about five yards out with an empty net in front of him.

It was a difficult situation for Khogen to find himself in, especially now that East Bengal have the superior head-to-head, the first differentiating factor if the teams end up tied on points. There must have been the disappointment of losing a match when they could have well cemented their title claim. "This was tough for us. East Bengal is a good side. We had chances, 3-4 chances, but we didn't take them. They got a chance and they scored."

For Jamil, whose tenure was rumoured to be on life support, this was a result that kept his side's chances alive. Unlike his players though, he showed little emotion after the game. "It felt good that we won but I am already thinking about the next match. We knew we had only one chance (for the title) before this game and that was to win. But the remaining matches are also exactly the same," he said.