Minerva Punjab begins title defense against Churchill Brothers

Both Minerva and Churchill have new strategists at the helm in the I-League in the form of Paul Munster for the champion and Petre Gigiu for the Goans and with new look squads from last year.

Minerva Punjab has a 2-1 head-to-head record over Churchill Brothers.   -  AIFF Media

Defending champion Minerva Punjab FC begins its I-League title defense with a home game against Goan giant Churchill Brothers Sports Club on Sunday at Panchkula’s Tau Devi Lal Stadium. The Punjab club has a 2-1 head-to-head advantage going into the game with the former two-time winner.

Both teams have new strategists at the helm in the form of Irishman Paul Munster for the champion and Romanian Petre Gigiu for the Goans and with new look squads from last year, it will be interesting to see what impressions they form at the beginning of the season.

ALSO READ | Shillong Lajong hosts Aizawl FC in season’s first Northeast Derby

Technical director and UEFA Pro-license holder coach Paul Munster, is a 36-year-old former striker with a successful playing career in Canada and comes to India after successful coaching stints in Sweden with youth teams.

He sounded professional in the build-up opining, “We are the champions and so every team will be up against us. The players need to step up. Once the game starts, its all about the two teams and 90 minutes out at the pitch.”

Focus on youth

Minerva’s squad for the I-League once again reflects that focus is on youth. In a potentially exciting forward line, 20-year-old sensation from Kohima, Hitova Ayemi, may just be the surprise package this time around. He will have company in the duo of experienced forward C.S. Sabeeth, who is on a welcome return to form after scoring nine goals for Ozone FC in an impressive second division I-League campaign last year, and Ghanian strikeman William Opoku, whose five goals last year played a key part in Minerva’s title win.

Speaking of exciting young talent, the champion also has the likes of Nongdamba Naorem in its ranks, the former Arrows winger who scored one of the best goals in the last edition.

ALSO READ | Chennai to have AFC Centre of Excellence

Then there is the two-footed winger Makan Winkle Chothe, who has made it up the Minerva ranks with virtuoso performances in their youth ranks, Delhi forward Dilliram Sanyasi and Souvik Das, the 23-year old playmaker from Bengal.

Another quality addition to the champion's squad this year will be Japanese forward Yu Kuboki, roped in from Sydney Olympic FC.

Forward Akash Sangwan sounded confident, saying, “The biggest advantage is we are playing our first match at home. Our pre-season went really well so everyone is confident. We have played quite a few friendly matches so there’s enough understanding between the players and the coach.”

Gigiu keen to avoid past mistakes

For the Goans, coach Gigiu, who comes on the back of the immense success in Algeria, will look no further than Gambian Dawda Cessay and Trinidadian Willis Deon Plaza to score the goals for his team. Churchill has also got back some players who have played for them previously and will be comfortable in the setup. Prominent among them will be midfielder Israel Gurung, who will be in his third stint at the club and forward Uttam Rai, who comes back for a second stint.

ALSO READ | AFC U-19 Women's Championship: India faces stern Thailand test

Churchill’s defense should be led by Wayne and Lebanese Hussein Eldor while James Kithan should be a safehouse in goal. Burly Ugandan Khalid Aucho in midfield is the other prominent foreigner to look out for in the Churchill ranks.

Speaking on the eve of the match, Gigiu shared his thoughts on the game, “It's a big game for us tomorrow and we want to play good for our supporters. We will surely try not to repeat mistakes from last season. We have five good foreign players this time, so we want to maintain good results.”