~ Debapriya Deb & Jonathan D’Souza

Salgaocar Sports Club can certainly start dreaming of lifting the I-League on the 29th of May, even though not many gave them a chance at the beginning of the season. Even Karim Bencherifa at the start of the season said that they would be happy with a top three finish. But the way Salgaocar have gone about decimating teams this season, including the likes of Churchill Brothers and Dempo, makes one believe that they are right up there in the reckoning for the title. They gave more proof about how destructive they can be by demolishing ONGC 5-0 at Fatorda. There was a brace each for Yusif Yakubu and young Gilbert Oliviera who is definitely in the running for the Young Player of the Year award. Ryuji Sueoka dished out another consistent performance scoring a penalty. For ONGC it was their ninth loss of the season and a reality check after their shock win against East Bengal. They are rooted at the rock bottom.

At Gurgaon, East Bengal dropped more points and crucially more ground on leaders Salgaocar after they were held to a 1-1 draw with Indian Arrows. Milan Singh gave the Arrows a shock lead in the 8th minute. Reisangmi Vashum got his first goal of the I-League when he equalized in the 18th minute, but East Bengal failed to find the winner even though they dominated the proceedings and created a number of goal-scoring opportunities. Raju Gaikwad was the star for Indian Arrows playing solidly at the back. He is slowly becoming Des Bulpin’s Man Friday. The draw meant East Bengal is now 5 points behind Salgaocar though they have played a game less. East Bengal still have eleven games to go and there’s still plenty of time for them to get back on track but will the AFC Cup prove to be an unnecessary distraction? Their participation in the continental cup means more games for them and more tiring players. But Trevor Morgan’s men know that they are closer to the title than they have ever been in the last few seasons and they will not want to let this opportunity to go begging.

Viva Kerala skipper Bello Rassaq is leading from the front

At Kolkata, an injury hit Mohun Bagan held Churchill Brothers to a goalless draw, virtually ending Churchill Brothers’ title aspirations. This game will however be remembered for an unnecessary controversy. Churchill started with two foreigners in Karpeh and Vincent. In the second half Karpeh made way for Odafa. But the fourth official failed to allow Churchill’s second substitution when they wanted to bring on Amaury in place of Vincent. The fourth official informed them that more than two substitutions with foreigners were not allowed. However, I-League rules state that at a time a maximum of three foreigners can take the field and does not state anything with regards to substitutions. It is not known whether Churchill lodged an official complaint with the AIFF but these are controversies that the AIFF should definitely avoid if they wish to make the League more professional.

At Ludhiana, Dempo made it four wins out of four with a 2-1 come from behind win against the Mill men. Gurtej Singh gave JCT the lead in the 12th minute after Dempo goalkeeper Subhashish Roy Choudhury failed to make a proper clearance. Ranti Martins equalized in the 32nd minute and Beto struck late in the 87th minute to give Dempo all three points. They are now placed in 3rd position, 9 points behind the table toppers with a game in hand. For JCT, it was their 8th loss of the season but ONGC’s loss means they still have a three point cushion.

An impressive HAL got all three points against Mumbai FC at Bangalore with a 1-0 win, which moves them to eighth in the table. Meitei scored a 77th minute goal to give HAL their 5th win of the season. At Kolhapur, Air India continued their survival battle gaining a precious point against Chirag United. Subhash Chakraborty gave Chirag the lead in the seventh minute but Air India’s foreign import Okorogor Praise equalized in the 36th minute to earn his team a valuable point.

The season’s best match rounds up this diary. Pune FC was cruising against Viva Kerala with a 4-0 score-line inside 40 minutes. Edmar, Gurjinder, Keita and Venkatesh pumped in goals against a hapless Kerala side like they were on a training pitch. But then the Great Escape started. Anil Kumar got a goal back for them at the stroke of half time. Then Kunnikrishnan probably did some magic in the dressing room because when Viva Kerala came out in the second half they played like men possessed. Felix converted a penalty in the 51st minute to make it 4-2. Captain Bello Rasaq made it 4-3 in the 77th minute and five minutes later Anil Kumar completed the sensational comeback to make it 4-4. Derrick Pereira and the Red Lizard supporters were left red-faced and stunned while for Viva this could be a crucial point in their battle for survival.

Star of the Week: Yusif Yakubu (Salgaocar)

The Ghanaian goal-machine – Yusif Yakubu

The veteran striker once again proved that age should not be a matter of concern if the passion for the game remains within. The Ghanaian goal-machine gave the Goan Greens an early lead around the half-an-hour mark as he showed poacher’s instinct to slot the ball home from a Gilberto Oliviera cross. He pumped in another one a couple of minutes before the final whistle to complete the 5-0 rout of the helpless ONGC outfit.

Goal of the Week: Venkatesh (Pune FC)

This one is arguably the best individual goal of the season till now. After receiving the ball from Gurjinder Singh in his own half, the veteran midfielder dodged an onrushing Viva player inside out to drift towards the right wing before making a marauding run through the flank, right up to the edge of the Viva box. He then cut in, foxed two defenders with his brilliant footwork and unleashed a trademark right footed bullet from the right side of the box which left Viva goalie Shahinlal flabbergasted. A quality strike by a quality player.

Save of the Week: Gurpreet Singh (Indian Arrows)

The India international Under-23 custodian was at his very best against East Bengal in this round. He made a number of superb saves throughout the entire match to earn a valuable point for his side. His best save of the game came in the 26th minute when Mehtab’s measured delivery from a flag kick was expertly tapped towards goal by Tolgay Ozbey from inside the six yards box. The ball was destined to find the back of the net, however Gurpreet showed electrifying reflexes to dive acrobatically to his right and divert the goal-bound ball for a corner to keep his side in the hunt.

Miss of the Week: Penn Orji (East Bengal)

Trevor James Morgan must be a worried man by the lack of finishing exhibited by his strikers in last few matches, including the match against Indian Arrows. Penn Orji would not be a proud man to find his name to be listed here – that too for the third time this season. Of late, the East Bengal midfielder has made a reputation of missing sitters and it was nothing different against Arrows as well. This time he was presented with a goal on the platter by Mehtab Hussain – only a simple tap in was required from just 10 yards out with the goalkeeper not being in his position – but inexplicably the Nigerian fired his left footed effort wide to let go a glorious opportunity to take the lead.

The Race for the Golden Boot Award:

Odafa Okolie (Churchill Brothers) : 15
Ryuji Sueoka (Salgaocar) : 14
Tolgay Ozbay (East Bengal) : 9
Yusif Yakubu (Salgaocar) :9

Ranti Martins (Dempo) : 9
Anil Kumar (Viva Kerala) :8

Elijah Junior (Chirag) : 8
Kayne Vincent(Churchill Brothers) : 8

TheHardTackle’s Team of the Week:

Formation: 4-3-3

Goalkeeper: Lalit Thapa (Churchill Brothers)

Defenders: Denzil Franco (Churchill Brothers), Sagaram Mandi (Mohun Bagan), Raju Gaekwad (Indian Arrows), Dhanachandra Singh (Air India)

Midfielders: Malemngamba Meitei (HAL SC), Beto (Dempo), Reisangmei Vasum (East Bengal)

Strikers: Anil Kumar (Viva Kerala), Yusif Yakubu (Salgaocar), Gilbert Oliviera (Salgaocar)