Zuniga winner takes Churchill Brothers back to I-League summit

Churchill Brothers headed back to the summit of the I-League table after beating NEROCA FC 1-0 at the Kishore Bharati Krirangan here on Wednesday.

Hero of the Match Clayvin Zuniga’s 16th-minute strike from a well-built team move was enough to give Fernando Varela’s side all three points in a game full of chances. With this win, the Red Machines have also secured themselves a top-six spot in the first phase of the I-League.

Churchill Brothers made two changes from their victory over Chennai City FC. Fernando Varela brought in goalkeeper Shibinraj Kunniyil and Vikas for Shilton Paul and Jovel Martins, respectively. Meanwhile, Gift Raikhan made a single change from their win over Sudeva, bringing in Prakash Budhathoki for Khaiminthang Lhungdim.

Churchill Brothers opened the game strongly creating two chances within the first five minutes of the game. However, Luka Majcen was unable to reach Vinil Poojary’s deflected cross in the 2nd minute, followed by Clayvin Zuniga’s long-range attempt, which was skied on the 4th minute.

The best chance of the opening ten minutes fell on the other end to NEROCA as Judah Garcia pounced on Bishorjit’s long kick in the 7th minute. With only the keeper to beat, the Trinidadian blasted his shot high over the target.

The game turned into fast end-to-end action over the next few minutes and the opening goal came in favour of Churchill Brothers in the 16th minute. Zuniga started the move in midfield and found Kingslee Fernandes, who lifted a perfect chipped return pass for Zuniga on the run. The Honduran then volleyed it beyond Bishorjit Singh.

Three minutes later, the duo again combined creating another opportunity. However, this time, Zuniga curled his effort wide of the target. The Red Machines started to dominate the game completely, continuously creating chances. Bryce Miranda made some space to shoot in the 30th minute, but his strike was blocked and sent for a corner.

Vikas found Vinil Poojary with a perfectly threaded pass in the 35th minute, but the right-winger wasted another opportunity to double the lead as his tame effort was easily saved. Churchill turned up the pressure towards the end of the half. Bishorjit Singh had to come off his line to bravely block Luka Majcen’s shot and keep the deficit to just one goal at the break.

Vikas came close to scoring the second goal after the restart when his overhit cross looked like it was creeping in at the far post. However, Bishorjit Singh recovered well and tipped it over for a corner. At the other end, NEROCA strung up a few chances.

Shibinraj was finally forced into action when he came off his line to collect Singam Subhash’s cross in the 55th minute. Three minutes later, the Churchill custodian was again sharp to come off his line and clear with his head, when Subash tried to reach Songpu Singsit’s through ball.

NEROCA pushed harder for the equaliser and came close again when Subash’s cross into the area was cleared by Hamza Kheir before Judah Garcia could pounce on it. Churchill realised they needed another goal to safeguard the result, and kept pushing for the second.

They came close twice in the span of five minutes as Bishorjit Singh had to come off his line and prevent Luka Majcen from scoring in the 66th and 71st minute. The NEROCA custodian showed quick reflexes to keep out Zuniga’s powerful header in the 75th minute, giving his teammates a fighting chance.

With time running out to save their campaign, NEROCA came inches within their equaliser as substitute Varun Thockchom’s header from Judah Garcia’s cross crashed against the crossbar in injury time. That was the last action of the game, as Churchill ran the clock down and headed back to the top of the table.

At the other end, the defeat confirms NEROCA out of the race for top-six, and will be in a relegation battle in the second phase of the I-League.