With the conclusion of Round-18, Churchill Brothers remain on top, however, East Bengal, with their win over title rivals Pune FC are giving the Goan side a tough challenge, trailing by just two points though having played two games more.
The season has been quite a fairytale run for Churchill Brothers but the winter transfer window couldn’t have thrown a greater shock for the team occupying the perch. Their defensive stalwart, Bilal Najjarine heading to UAE outfit, Fujairah SC. Bilal has been nothing less than a rock at the back. There is little doubt that he was the best signing among I-League clubs for current season.
The Lebanese defender had been a calming influence at the back, leading the back line with finesse. Despite this being Bilal’s debut in India, his performances didn’t show any negative signs and the tall centre-back settled almost immediately with great effect. The 6ft 2in defender was not only good in aerial duels, but was phenomenal on his feet as well. In addition, the 31 year old was good on the ball and never missed a chance to surge forward, to help his team. Such was the influence of the man that he had earned universal respect in the Churchill Brothers squad and he was singled out by a host of coaches for his consistent performances.
Quite recently, East Bengal coach Trevor Morgan praised the exquisite performance of Bilal stating: “Churchill has dominated the game. They were good in counter-attack. The boy playing centre-back (Bilal Najjarine) was superb.”
Given his influence Bilal’s absence leaves a huge void in the Churchill camp. India’s top tier competition has still a long way to go and with teams closing in on the Goan outfit, his absence would be one to rue. Churchill Brothers would have wished to kept hold of the priced asset, but it was not to be.
Churchill Brothers are evidently short on squad strength and Bilal’s departure doesn’t improve their condition. Also, they are set to take part in the AFC Cup in place of the fellow Dempo so squad strength would have been more important for them than anyone else.
The teams closely chasing them down are East Bengal, Pune and Dempo, of which East Bengal and Pune have a strong depth in the squad, especially East Bengal. This would certainly be a cause of worry for the table toppers. One thing the Goa side would be wary of is to avid the feeling of déjà vu with reference to East Bengal, who ended runners up last time, following the departure of the Scot Alan Gow and the veteran Edmilson. Churchill Brothers themselves have often failed to capture the title despite being on top of the table for most of the I-League season.
One thing on top of the agenda of the Goan outfit would be to scalp a replacement for Bilal, who if not as good, is atleast close to the Lebanese. With rumours running strong of the signature of the Dutch Defender Bas van den Brink in the next 72 hours by the Churchill side, he could be the man to cover for the phenomenal Bilal. Given, the Dutch generally have a good sense of the game and with experience on his side, Brink could well be the man who lets Churchill Brothers fill the big void. They had their work cut out in finding an apt replacement, but with Brink, they might have succeeded. As tall as the Lebanese, the Dutch will be looking to settle in quickly and at 30, he has host of experience to make it big in India. One has to wary of the fact that European footballers have never found success in Indian shores. Maybe Brink will change that pattern.
In what was Bilal’s farewell match, the Goan outfit played out a timid goalleass draw with the season surprise package Mumbai FC. In a rather uneventful game, the point of note was Beto’s injury, following which he was rushed to the hospital. The hosts got the better of chances, but the former Churchill man, N.D. Opara made a hash of them, in a game that saw the Churchill keeper Sandip Nandy emerge as the hero. Churchill Brothers were rather wasteful in possession and the game ended in a stalemate. Last gasp effort to win the game by bringing on Akram Moghrabi too failed.
The second game of the round was a highly anticipated game between East Bengal and Pune FC at the Balewadi Sports Complex, which was a potential six pointer. Pune FC were made to pay for missing a couple of glit-edged chances as East Bengal, riding on an Edeh Chidi brace, got the better of the Pune side. The Red and Golds got a late penalty to seal the tie to move into the second spot. Earlier, Edeh Chidi put the visitors in front, only to see Japanese turned Indian, Arata Izumi equalize in the first half.
The Mariners failed to register their first win post comeback, as the prolific scorer, Ranti Martins scored a late, late equalizer to force Mohun Bagan to split points with the fellow Kolkata side. Prayag, who were guilty of missing numerous chances, were saved by their go-to man Martins after Tolgay Ozbey put the Mariners ahead, scoring his first I-League goal in Green & Maroon jersey. Both would neither be happy, nor disappointed with a point.
Dempo staged a late comeback against the Oilmen to salvage a draw, failing to close the gap with Churchill Brothers. In a nicely balanced game, Jatin Bisht put the visitors in front in the 37th minute and just when ONGC would have been entertaining thoughts of what would have been a double over defending champions, second half substitute Peter Carvalho restored parity for the Goan side in added time. In this keenly fought contest draw was a fair reflection.
In yet another comeback, the colts of Pailan Arrows came back from 1-0 down, to split points with the Snow Lions, with a late strike. In a game that lacked quality, Anwar Ali thumped in a brilliant volley to give the North-Eastern side the lead, but substitute Tirthankar Sarkar salvaged a point for the AIFF developmental side. Overall, it was a timid display by both sides.
In a week that would be tagged as the ‘week of comebacks’, Shillong Lajong hit late in the sixth minute of added time to split points with the Airmen. It was a dream debut for new Lajong striker, Sho Kamimura as the Japanese struck a brace to help Shillong rescue an important point. Earlier, Henry Ezeh put the Air India in front, only to see Kamimura hit back. After the restart, the Airmen yet again went one goal to the good, courtesy of Prakash Thorat in the 66thminute, but a 90+6 minute strike for the debutant spoiled their party.
The last game of the Round saw two struggling Goan sides up against each other, with both active in the transfer market, to try and rescue their season. Both sides have bolstered their squads and Sporting Club handed their Spanish recruit, Angel Berlanga his debut. Sporting registered an easy 2-0 win, with the impressive Ogba Kalu scoring on the hour mark, followed by a debut goal by Berlanga seven minutes later to round up an impressive win. The win helped Sporting club leapfrog three clubs, to be precise, rising well above danger.