The final match day of the 2017-18 season of the I-League is upon us. It has all boiled down nicely to a thrilling final day where the top four teams are in with a chance of winning the championship. It has arguably been the most exciting season in the history of the I-League.
Minerva Punjab are at the summit after game week 17 with 32 points followed by NEROCA FC (31), Mohun Bagan (30) and East Bengal (30). The table toppers lock horns against Churchill Brothers at Panchkula while NEROCA and East Bengal come face to face in Kolkata. Mohun Bagan are up against Gokulam Kerala, a team who has earned the tag of Giant Killers this season.
Out of all the four teams, East Bengal’s chances of winning the league look the bleakest. Even if they win their final match against NEROCA at home, they have to depend on the results of Minerva and arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.
Let us quickly go through the conditions under which Khalid Jamil’s men can lift the I-League title. If the Red and Golds win their match at home they reach 33 points. If Minerva win their match they bag the title as they will reach 35 points. But if they lose or manage a draw against Churchill they will be tied on points with East Bengal but the Kolkata giants will win the title by virtue of better head-to-head record. Even then, it all depends on Mohun Bagan.
If Mohun Bagan win their clash against Gokulam they will run away with the championship as they have defeated East Bengal twice this season. East Bengal fans will pray that their arch-rivals will drop points at Kozhikode.
Things were not this complicated for Khalid Jamil’s side before their match against Shillong Lajong. With Minerva’s defeat against Chennai City on March 2nd, the equation was pretty simple for the Kolkata giants. They needed to win their remaining two matches and walk away with the title. But the scenario completely changed when the side was held to a 2-2 draw in Shillong.
But this was not the first time this season that East Bengal unnecessarily complicated their journey. After losing 0-2 in their second consecutive derby on January 21st and managing just a draw against Minerva Punjab at home, Khalid Jamil’s drifted away from the title race. Things looked gloomy at the Red and Golds’ camp as they staring at yet another disappointing campaign in the I-League.
The scenario drastically changed after their next two matches where they defeated Indian Arrows and Minerva Punjab away from home. The Kolkata giants came back strongly in the title race once again.
Just when the picture looked rosy again, they suffered a shock defeat at Kozhikode at the hands of ‘giant killers’ Gokulam Kerala FC. The pressure was back in the East Bengal camp.
Bino George’s men registered back-to-back wins against giants Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and it seemed that the debutants single-handedly knocked the Kolkata sides out of the championship fight. But it was not the end of the drama as they defeated Minerva in their next game to bring back East Bengal in the race again.
A rejuvenated East Bengal then humiliated Chennai City FC 7-1 at home and the same Chennai side defeated Minerva which proved to be the icing on the cake for the Kolkata giants. It was the third time that East Bengal were back in the title race this season and this time the equation was simple. It seemed that the football gods were finally smiling on East Bengal and the fans thought their 14-year wait for the fourth I-League title will finally end.
But Khalid Jamil’s side once again ‘bottled it’ at Shillong. A 2-2 draw against an average looking Lajong side meant that they now have to depend on the results of others to end their I-League trophy drought.
This has been a familiar story for East Bengal where they have strong seasons and look set for the title, only to falter when it matters. Last season, they led the league for long before suffering a loss of form towards the end which saw them drop out of the race.
Unlike the other seasons when the side faltered in the final lap of the race after starting the season on a high, this year’s journey was a roller coaster ride. Even then, this was possibly East Bengal’s best chance to win the title but now it seems that the long wait will continue for the fans, unless three results go their way on Thursday!