A sorry maiden campaign in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Cup came to a befittingly dismal end for Minerva Punjab on Wednesday with the Indian side falling to a defeat to Abahani Dhaka in its final Group E fixture.
The late winner by Masih Saigani at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati consigned Minerva to only its first defeat in six Group E fixtures but it was a spate of five draws previously that had already decided the fortunes of the I-League outfit.
The 2017-18 I-League champions failed to cover themselves in glory in their continental debut with the side finishing above only Nepalese side Manang Marshyangdi in Group E. While there was disappointment for fellow Indian outfit Chennaiyin FC as well in Group E, Minerva’s failure to eek out a single win in six games against opposition from India, Bangladesh and Nepal is a damning indictment of their struggles in the recently concluded season.
Neither Abahani Dhaka or Manang Marshyangdi are world-beaters but Minerva failed to stamp any authority in its four clashes against the two sides.
They were the cynosure of all eyes when they captured the 2017-18 I-League trophy in what was only their second season in the top flight. However, the Punjab-based outfit have gone backwards by some margin in the 2018-19 season with not many positives to write about.
Their defence of the I-League title was a poor one with the side finishing third from bottom in the 11-team competition after garnering just the 18 points in 20 matches. Sachin Badhade and his men were abysmal throughout the campaign and registered just four victories in the league while losing as many as 10.
The huge turnover of players post their fairytale I-League triumph last year has played its part in Minerva’s struggles with the squad being stripped of its most prized assets such as Chencho Gyeltshen, Kassim Aidara, Bali Gagandeep and Sukhdev Singh.
Though Minerva has enjoyed considerable success in the youth leagues, it has not translated to their senior side.
While they did recruit the likes of Mahmoud Al Amnah from East Bengal, the squad has simply failed to gel together and display the same intensity they displayed in the 2017-18 season.
Losing title-winning coach Khogen Singh was a big blow for the outfit with his successor Paul Munster struggling to come to grips with the I-League. After a season of woes, it was no surprise that Munster stepped down of his own accord towards the tail end of the season with Sachin Badadhe taking over the vacant role.
A change of coach just before your debut campaign in the AFC Cup is the last thing Minerva would have wanted and their worst fears were realised eventually with the side enduring a disastrous campaign.
While they were never in the same financial bracket such as Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, Minerva are now paying the price for failing to build properly on their title-winning side in 2017-18.
They now need to go back to the drawing board and learn from the harsh lessons their disastrous season has taught them.