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I-League 2018-19: Can Minerva Punjab defend the title?

4:07 AM GMT+4 16/10/2018
Minerva Punjab
It is a daunting task for the Warriors to make it two in a row. Can they match their performance from the previous season?

When Minerva Punjab clinched the I-League title on the last matchday, India once again witnessed an underdog story after Aizawl's win in the 2016-17 season. 

If reaching the acme is difficult enough, then to consolidate one's position at the top is something more onerous. Aizawl FC are the most glaring example as they slipped to the fifth position from being the champions in a span of 12 months. Most of their best performers left for greener pastures along with head coach Khalid Jamil and The Peple's Club were only a shadow of themselves.

Since the re-christening of the National Football League (NFL) as the I-League, no team have ever retained their crown. Can Minerva Punjab create history by becoming the first club to successfully defend the title since East Bengal managed to do it in 2003-04 during the NFL era?

No doubt that the task at hand is Herculean in stature. But the modus operandi of the Chandigarh-based club has remained the same. Like the previous season, a host of youngsters are set to debut for the senior team along with a couple of players who are looking to make a comeback to mainstream football. 

Chinadorai Sathyan Sabeeth, who dazzled the Kolkata Maidan during his stint with Mohun Bagan in the 2013-14 season after scoring in each of the two derbies against arch-rivals East Bengal, failed to live up to the promise. For the past two seasons, he had been plying his trade in the 2nd Division with Ozone FC. In the last season, Sabeeth was in a brilliant patch of form as he smashed nine goals in thirteen appearances. He even scored in the final round game against Real Kashmir but his team conceded twice in injury time to let go of the 2-1 lead. 

Moinuddin Khan is another player who must have already marked December 19 on the calendar as the Warriors will host Mohun Bagan. Khan scored a late equaliser against Bagan in the season-opener and chipped in with decent performances throughout the campaign in the previous edition of I-League. The Kolkata-based club roped him in for the Calcutta Football League 2018. But the striker failed to impress coach Sankar Lal Chakraborty and was subsequently released. Now, he has rejoined Minerva and will be looking to settle some scores.

Minerva has been able to churn out the best from unheralded names with Abhishek Ambekar a prime example. The left-back was brilliant in the I-League last season and is now an undisputable starter in Mohun Bagan. Bali Gagandeep and Kamalpreet Singh rocketed into the spotlight with Minerva’s title-winning campaign and this time the likes of Makan Winkle Chothe, Dilliram Sanyasi are ready to fill their shoes. 

Minerva had been spot on in their overseas scouting last season, roping in the likes of Chencho Gyletshen and Kassim Aidara who were instrumental in their success. Both the aforementioned players were rewarded with better contracts after they joined Bengaluru FC and East Bengal respectively. This season, Yu Kuboki has been grabbing the headlines given his blistering form in front of the goal in the pre-season friendlies. William Opoku, who scored Minerva's title-winning goal, is also back with the team. To add to that, reinforcements are waiting in the wings to strengthen their attack and defence. If the team management strikes gold once again with the new recruits, Minerva will have a formidable side. 

Club owner Ranjit Bajaj continues to remain involved at every level. "He (Ranjit Bajaj) is an extremely good observer. There are some things which might overlook during a match but he will point it to us which is definitely an added advantage," said head coach Sachin Badadhe to Goal during a chat. 

While the big boys continue to spend lavishly in re-building the squad, Minerva Punjab do not have the financial muscle to tread that path. Instead, they have once again chosen to stick to their proven method of promoting their academy players along with some shrewd overseas purchases. It remains to be seen whether the 'Minerva Way' can help land their second successive title or not.