Minerva Punjab FC suffered a dent in its I-League run-in last season when it visited the Nehru Stadium in its penultimate match, losing 2-1 to Chennai City FC. It didn’t matter as Minerva bounced back with a win on the final day of the season to claim its maiden championship.
Fast forward a year later, Chennai City, chasing its own maiden championship in the final match of the season, was in danger of being on the receiving end of a reversal against the same opponent. For Chennai City, however, it didn’t need any second chances as it clawed back from a goal down to claim a 3-1 win in Coimbatore on Saturday and crown itself the undisputed champion.
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Chennai City wouldn’t have it any other way. The home side wasted no time in getting off the tracks with its top-scorer Pedro Manzi getting a couple of swipes at goal in the opening minute. Thappus (native drums) were being belted out in the stands in the anticipation of a triumph. The game had all the makings of a memorable evening for both Chennai City and its supporters.
A couple of minutes later, disaster struck in the form of Minerva striker Roland Bilala. He attacked the near post and jumped ahead of Tarif Akhand, who replaced Roberto Eslava in the starting XI during the warm-ups, to arrow the ball into the top corner of the goal with a header. Juan Quero Barraso couldn’t have delivered the ball any better from a free-kick on the right flank.
The home fans were stunned into silence. Even if you had thought otherwise, Minerva Punjab certainly didn’t come here to play along to the party line. It made it difficult for Chennai City to get into its rhythm. Chances were at a minimum for Pedro Manzi and co. in the first half with the away side defending tight in two banks of four. Jorgeivan Caicedo was colossal at the back snuffing out crosses and through balls coming into his area.
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Perhaps, Chennai City was missing the creativity and the influence of Nestor Gordillo on the left flank. His replacement, Jozef Kaplan, didn’t have the desired effect in the first half, first on the left wing and then on the right. As the rains made their way at the half-time break, Chennai City’s uninspiring first-half display came to an end. Minerva Punjab did well to allow just one shot on target against a side which had scored 26 goals in nine previous matches. The title was still in Chennai City’s hands since East Bengal hadn’t managed to take the lead against Gokulam Kerala.
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However, 16 of those 26 Chennai City goals came in the second period. And the host lived up to those statistics as it started on the front foot yet again at the restart. The first one came from a dubious penalty call. Referee Santhosh Kumar was quick to point to the spot after Minerva defender Akashdeep Singh inadvertently handled the ball in the area. Manzi stepped up and coolly slotted the ball into the bottom left corner to level the scores in the 56th minute. The home supporters found their voices again and Chennai City had found its stride.
Manzi could have doubled the lead and taken firm control of the right to the golden boot in the 60th minute, but he put his header wide from left-back Ajith Kumar’s cross. But, Gaurav Bora didn’t miss with his chance from close range. Sandro Rodriguez’s out-swinging corner from the right was swept home by the center back to put the host ahead in the 69th minute. It was doubly sweet for Chennai City as East Bengal went a goal behind at the same moment in Kozhikode.
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From there on, it was a celebratory atmosphere marked with some swift counter-attacking football. East Bengal’s equaliser did not matter anymore. Ajith made some dangerous forays down the left channel but his crosses did not find any takers.
Bora added a second goal of the night from another corner in added time when he rifled the ball into the net with a header to ensure East Bengal’s own comeback would be deemed irrelevant.
When the final whistle went off, Chennai City players and coach Akbar Nawas sunk to their feet. Manzi slouched to his backside as he watched his bench make their way on to the pitch in delight. It was a remarkable feat achieved by a youthful side as they celebrated in unison.