Gokulam Kerala FC retained the I-League crown in style by beating the home favourite Mohammedan Sporting 2-1 in the concluding round of the tournament, which was played in front of a vociferous 47,000 supporters at the giant Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday.
Rishad and Emil Benny found the target for Gokulam Kerala FC, which topped the league table with 43 points from 18 matches. Marcus Joseph provided the lone reply for Mohammedan SC, which finished second tallying 37 points.
AS IT HAPPENED | Gokulam Kerala 2-1 Mohammedan SC Highlights: GKFC becomes 1st club in 15 years to defend the I-League
In securing the record of becoming the first team in the I-League history to win back-to-back titles, Gokulam Kerala showed nice discipline and application to outclass a strong challenge from the local opponent.
Needing just a draw to retain the title, the Malabarians made a sedate start and tried to wear out the offensive plans of Mohammedan Sporting by employing a defensive approach in the opening half.
Gokulam Kerala could have fetched the lead against the run of play in the seventh minute when Alex Saji made a nice run from his defensive position to set up a low cross that was sent wide off an open goal by Tahir Zaman.
The GKFC goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar pulled off a nice save in the ninth minute to prevent Mohammedan Sporting midfielder Adnelo Rudovic’s curling freekick from going in.
Gokulam Kerala suffered a setback towards the end of the opening session when its prolific striker Jourdain Fletcher injured himself while making a long range-attempt in the 42nd minute.
Just when the odds appeared to be heavily stacked against Gokulam Kerala, the Malabarians broke off the shackles to make the second half their own. The holder found the lead in the 49th minute thanks to a wonderful assist from Luka Majcen.
The Slovenian forward, who had missed the last four matches of GKFC recovering from an injury, returned with a flourish and shaped up the team’s attack in absence of Fletcher.
He created the opportunity with a fine pass that released Rishad unmarked on top of the Mohammedan Sporting box. The Gokulam Kerala winger made no mistake in firing a rasping grounder that found the bottom corner of the opponent’s net.
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Luka emerged the true hero of the contest as he set up the winning goal with the same adeptness at the hour mark, this time to release Emil Benny unchallenged at the top of the Mohammedan Sporting box.
The latter made no mistake with his angular shot that wrapped the side of the net. The second goal became important after Mohammedan Sporting had levelled the issue from Marcus Joseph’s 56th minute free-kick.
Joseph was awarded the Golden Ball (Hero of the League) as well as the Golden Boot (highest goalscorer) with 16 goals to his name this season.