The countdown to the I-League and relegation battles has started. The I-League is just nine rounds away from its culmination and by the end of round 18 the battle for the title and relegation is wide open. East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and Dempo Sports Club took advantage of Salgaocars absence in this round notching up impressive victories to close the gap and pile on the pressure at the top. With Indian Arrows playing the pre Olympic qualifier, Salgaocar’s game with them was cancelled allowing the other three teams to close the gap on the leaders. Churchill Brothers notched an impressive 3-1 victory over Mumbai FC at home. Odafa opened the scoring in the 16th minute through a penalty after young Israil Gurung was brought down in the box by goalkeeper Ishan Debnath. Kayne Vincent replaced a “further injured” Odafa in the second half and he came up with two second half goals to notch up a comfortable 3-1 victory over Mumbai FC who were decimated 1-5 by Churchill in the reverse fixture earlier in the season. Churchill closed the gap on the leaders to four points albeit having played a game more.

East Bengal won their first game of the second leg hammering JCT 3-0 at the Salt Lake. The win gave Trevor Morgan a much needed three points after a disappointing start to the second leg by. India international Baljit Singh Sahni scored a brace while Ravinder Singh added a third for the Bengal side. This was East Bengal’s first win in three games and this win puts their title challenge firmly back on track. For JCT, they slide further down and the threat of relegation looms large over Sukhwinder Singh’s men.

Red-&-Golds back on track

N.P. Pradeep probably scored one of his most important goals for Viva Kerala to help them to a crucial 1-0 win over HAL at Bangalore. HAL defence looked out of sorts right from the first minute but was helped by some poor finishing from the Viva strikers. In the second half HAL too missed some sitters with R.C Prakash being the culprit on more than one occasion. The win gave Viva Kerala a jump to 11th spot and some respite for coach Kunnikrishnan.

Pune FC’s miserable second season in the top flight continued after they were beaten by Chirag United 1-0 at the Salt Lake. This was Chirag’s first win in four games which included two losses. An underperforming team and a porous defence has been Derrick Pereira’s bane this season. After a super debut season they were expected to perform strongly this year but misfiring strikers coupled with a miserable away form has been Derrick’s problem this season. Had they won against Chirag they would have climbed above them to 7th place, instead they remain rooted on 19 points in 8th position.

Air India gave themselves a fighting chance of avoiding the drop winning the proverbial relegation 6 pointer 2-1 at Kolhapur. Manjit Singh continued his fine form scoring in the 6th minute to give the Airmen an early lead. But in the 53rd minute Badmus Babatunde restored parity for the Oilmen. Air India coach Subash Kashyap then made an inspired substitution that changed the game and probably Air India’s season. He brought in Ibrahim in place of Vijeeth Shetty. Ibrahim turned provider for Allan Dias from the right to help him to his first goal of the season and most importantly the winner in the 66th minute.

In the final game of the round, Dempo’s blue army annihilated Mohun Bagan 4-1 at Fatorda. In fact it was a repeat of the match at Salt Lake last season. The only difference was that last year each of Dempo’s goals were greeted with pin drop silence while yesterday each Dempo goal nearly blew the roof off the stadium. Bagan got hit by a Thursday Typhoon with Clifford Miranda getting a brace and Climax and Ranti also getting on the score sheet. Beto was again sensational providing assists for all the four goals. Muritala Ali got a late goal for the Mariners that couldn’t even be called a consolation.

Deadly combo

Star of The Week: Clifford Miranda (Dempo)

Clifford Miranda got his first goals of this years League notching up two to win The Hard Tackle’s Star Of The Week award. Clifford was brilliant on the left showing plenty of pace and delivering some superb crosses. His second goal was a stunning shot into the top left corner from the edge of the box leaving Sangram Mukherjee flat footed. The way he ran at defenders and showed willingness to dribble pas defenders was a treat to watch. He also frequently changed flanks with Joe Rodrigues confusing the Bagan defenders and creating mayhem at the back for The Mariners.

Goal Of The Week : N.P. Pradeep (Viva Kerala)

Pradeep is slowly turning out to be Kunnikrishnan’s most important signing of the season. On Tuesday Pradeep gave us another glimpse of his long range shooting ability scoring a scorcher from 30 yards to sink HAL. Mohammed Shafi made a good run on the left and laid the ball to an unmarked Pradeep. From the edge of the box Pradeep shot powerfully straight into the top corner leaving the HAL keeper a mute spectator.

Save of The Week: Somnath Khara (Chirag United)

In the absence of Abhijit Mondal, Chirag United had young Somnath to thank for. The young goalkeeper made fantastic saves to help Chirag maintain their one goal advantage and eventually win the game. On one occasion he made a brilliant save off Mondjou Keita. Ajayan from the left sent in a pin point cross to Keita who was unmarked and he headed in goal wards with tremendous power. But Somnath leapt high and tipped it over to complete a stunning save.

Miss Of The Week: R.C. Prakash (HAL)

R.C Prakash can sometimes get praise and curse in a single game. He creates chances out of nothing but the very next moment misses an absolute sitter. After coming on as a second half substitute Prakash after receiving the ball from midfield beat the offside trap. The Viva goalkeeper came rushing out. Prakash had only to round off the keeper and score, instead he chose to scoop it over but his shot had too much elevation and the ball sailed over.

The Race For The Golden Boot

Odafa Okolie (Churchill Brothers) :17
Ryuji Sueoka (Salgaocar) : 14
Ranti Martins (Dempo) : 11
Kayne Vincent (Churchill Brothers) : 11
Yusif Yakubu (Salgaocar) : 10
Tolgay Ozbay (East bengal) : 9
Anil Kumar (Viva Kerala) : 8
Elijah Junior (Chirag) : 8

TheHardTackle’s Team Of The week:

Goalkeeper : Somnath (Chirag United)

Somnath was outstanding against Pune FC thwarting the likes of Keita and Ajayan regularly to take the goalkeepers position in the team of the week.

Defenders:

Chika Wali (Chirag United), Mahesh Gawli (Dempo), Gurwinder Singh (East Bengal), Chales Dzisah (Viva Kerala)

Chika Wali had a good game against his former club while Mahesh has been outstanding for Dempo at the back since his return from Doha. Gurwinder Singh is improving with every game and is having a great season at the back for the Red and Golds. Viva’s Charles Dzisah makes up the back four.

Midfielders:

Clifford Miranda (Dempo), Beto (Dempo), Mehtab Hussain (East Bengal), Allan Dias (Air India),

Beto was sensational against Bagan pulling the strings and running the show from midfield. He assisted all four Dempo goals. Clifford was brilliant on the left and along with Allan Dias – the goal scoring hero for Air India- make up the flanks. Mehtab Hussain was sensational and at his creative best against JCT. He will partner Beto at the centre of the park.

Strikers:

Baljit Sahni (East Bengal), Kayne Vincent (Churchill Bfrothers)

It was easy pickings for the strikers in the Team Of the week. Both Sahni and Vincent deserve a place after scoring a brace each – incidentally both against their former employers.