Two of the four title contenders of the I-League 2017-18 battle it out at the majestic Saltlake Stadium in Kolkata on the final day of the I-League campaign. East Bengal will host NEROCA FC in what promises to be a lip-smacking contest on Thursday, March 8.
The Red & Golds will win the league if and only if they leave the ground with all three points and other results go their way. Mohun Bagan or Minerva Punjab FC’s win will anyway leave the Red & Golds empty-handed irrespective of the result in Kolkata.
A draw for the Punjab side will take them level on points with East Bengal but the Red and Golds will edge out given their superior head to head tally with Minerva Punjab FC.
The Red and Golds will be up against the Manipuri side who have had no game time in over a fortnight but have had a memorable season so far, their first in the top-flight football of the nation.
East Bengal, with 30 points in their kitty are ranked fourth, owing to an inferior head-to-head record with archrivals Mohun Bagan, who also have the same number of points.
NEROCA FC are a point and a place behind leaders Minerva Punjab given they have amassed 31 points in their seventeen games so far.
East Bengal arrive into this matchup following a 2-2 draw at Shillong Lajong FC. They would have had themselves to blame after taking the lead in the first half but gave away two goals only to equalise late and stay in the hunt for the title on the last day.
“This is our last match of the season, we are playing at home so we have to be positive. I am not doing any calculation; this is the last game so we have to get three points. Let’s see what happens next. I am only thinking what is under my control. Minerva are at the top of the table, they have the maximum points so they are favourites definitely,” said Khalid Jamil.
He added, “There is no pressure on us. We have to do well in our last match. I am not thinking about pressure. NEROCA are a good team they are also fighting for the championship. They are playing well and are defensively very strong. Our finishing must improve. Lets us see what happens.”
On MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi, who has scored seven goals so far in the I-League, he opined, “Dudu is doing a good job. He has to continue his work and score goals.”
Eduardo Ferreira should be back after serving his one-match suspension. Gurwinder Singh is set to lose his spot in the centre of defence to the Brazilian.
Last season’s Second Division League winners NEROCA FC can win unprecedented back-to-back titles with a little help from other results as well. With Minerva Punjab FC having done the league double over them, NEROCA would need Churchill Brothers to beat the current league leaders in Panchkula.
Having last played a game on February 18 which ended in a shattering loss to Mohun Bagan at home, the period of inactivity could cost the Imphal-based side dearly but head coach Gift Raikhan did not let the occasion get to him.
“We are not panicking. There is no pressure. We will enjoy the game and look to win. We definitely have ambitions as we are still in with a chance of winning the I-League. But there is no pressure and we have nothing to lose,” he said.
“They are a good team and everybody knows that. But East Bengal will be under pressure. They failed to win the last match and for a team of their stature, it adds extra pressure. That can act to our advantage,” Raikhan threw the pressure on the home side instead.
Gift Raikhan will be a bit worried since he won’t have his two experienced players available. Gouramangi Singh is sidelined with an injury and Aryn Williams is suspended as he accumulated his fourth yellow card in the last match.
It all boils down to the three simultaneous kick-offs on the final day that is going to decide the fate of the I-League 2017-18. It’ll kick-off at 3pm IST and it’ll be telecast on Star Sports 1/1 HD and streamed on HotStar and Jio TV.