The I-League title will be decided on the last matchday after table-toppers Tiddim Road Athletic Union (TRAU) played out a 1-1 draw against second-placed Churchill Brothers on Sunday at the Kishore Bharati Krirangan.
Luka Majcen’s (28 mins) strike was cancelled out by Phalguni Singh’s (43 mins) effort as the teams shared the points — with both goals coming in the first half.
Although TRAU stay on the top of the table, the Nandakumar-coached side are level on points (26) with Churchill Brothers and could be sharing the pole position with Gokulam Kerala FC if the Malabarians get a win against Mohammedan SC. If Gokulam win, three teams — TRAU, Churchill Brothers and Gokulam — will have the chance to get their hand on the trophy on March 27.
Churchill started the match on an attacking note. The Red Machines could have taken the lead as early as the second minute as Majcen was found inside the box by a well-weighted pass but his shot from close range failed to find the net.
Churchill heaped pressure on TRAU in the opening minutes. In the 12th minute, Clayvin Zuniga was found by Majcen inside the box, but Zuniga, who was already in an offside position could only rattle the bar with his effort. Seven minutes later, Churchill upped the ante and Zuniga once again tested TRAU’s goalkeeper Amrit Gope with a powerful shot. But Gope made a world-class save to deny Churchill the lead.
In the 23rd minute, Churchill’s Bryce Miranda missed a sitter and probably the best goal-scoring opportunity of the match. With the goalkeeper out of position, Miranda had to just tap the ball home from close range, after Wendell Savio had found him inside the box. Instead, he fluffed his shot.
All of Churchill’s dominance finally paid off in the 27th minute when the referee pointed to the spot for a clumsy tackle inside the box. Majcen stepped up to take the penalty kick and smashed it home to hand Churchill the lead as the scoreline read 1-0.
Playing catch-up to Churchill Brothers for much of the first half, TRAU rarely showcased shades of their former selves. With Komron Tursunov leaving for international duty with Tajikistan, the Nandakumar-coached side struggled to jot attacks as Bidyashagar Singh was left isolated up front.
However, all it took for the Manipur-based club was one through-ball in the 43rd minute to bring the match to level terms. A well-weighted pass by Bidyashagar Singh split the defensive pairing of Hamza Kheir and Keenan Almeida in two as Phalguni Singh beat them for speed and latched onto the ball. With just the opposition goalkeeper to beat, he slotted the finish home and made the scoreline read 1-1.
After the half-time scoreline read 1-1, TRAU, spurred by their equaliser, had a great chance to take the lead in the 48th minute when Joseph Olaleye tried to find Bidyashagar Singh inside the box. Had Olaleye’s pass been better, TRAU could have taken the lead.
In the 54th minute, much against the run of play, Savio hit the crossbar with a curling shot from outside of the box. The ball fell to Zuniga, who could have had a chance to score, but was unable to control the ball as TRAU survived a dangerous spell of play. Two minutes later, Kingslee Fernandes found Majcen inside the box but Majcen skewed his shot wide of the goal.
Churchill Brothers upped the ante after missing a couple of chances and pinned TRAU to their own half. Zuniga came agonizingly close to handing Churchill Brothers the lead in the 69th minute when he burst past the TRAU defence line. His shot, however, got lost in the jungle of TRAU legs causing chaos inside the box.
The Red Machines continued their attacking dominance but once again were left frustrated in the final third as TRAU committed bodies in defence and defended in numbers. Half chances for Zuniga and Majcen went amiss and TRAU playing on the counter, had rare chances in front of the goal.
TRAU could have taken home all the three points with one minute of regulation time to go as Bidyashagar was played in on goal by Joseph. The forward tried to round the advancing Shibinraj but the Churchill keeper did brilliantly to take the ball off his feet.