IMPHAL: A first-half strike by Chencho Gyeltshen was enough for Minerva Punjab to claim three points against Neroca FC in a top-of-the-table clash in I-League at the Khuman Lampak Stadium on Saturday.
In Lalit Thapa’s absence, Bishorjit Singh was handed goalkeeping duties instead of Sambu Mishtry by Neroca head coach Gift Raikhan. Govin Singh, Hopi Singh and Israilov Akhlidin were brought into the starting lineup in place of Ashok Singh, Ronald Singh and Nedo Turkovic.
Nepalese custodian Kiran Limbu replaces Rakshit Dagar in goal for Khogen Singh’s side. Bali Gagandeep and Altamash Sayed came into the lineup in place of Lago Bei and Moinuddin Khan as the visitors sought to extend their lead at the top of the table.
Minerva Punjab came out of the blocks immediately after kick-off and broke the deadlock in the second minute of the game.
A throw-in from the right into the box was flicked into the path of Chencho Gyeltshen by Bali Gagandeep and the Bhutanese forward latched onto it to send a terrific volley into the back of the net.
The visitors continued to put pressure on the home defence and Chenco was proving to be too difficult to handle. The ‘Bhutanese Ronaldo’ split Neroca’s backline to release William Asiedu through on goal but with only the goalkeeper to beat, the striker sent his shot crashing into the side-netting.
The Punjab-based side were visibly aggressive in their approach and looked hungry to double their lead.
Neroca’s inability to create chances was concerning for Raikhan and the head coach wasted no time in changing things around as he made two substitutions in the first half. Pritam Singh replaced an ineffective Akhlidin Israilov in midfield and Saran Singh was also thrown into the equation in place of Yumnam Singh.
The changes, however, failed to bring about a change in the overall flow of the game as Minerva continued to threaten in the attacking third whereas Neroca struggled to catch the visitors’ defence off-guard in the first-half.
Minerva Punjab threatened against after the restart as Chencho managed to pick out Asiedu inside the box from the right but the Ghanaian striker sent his effort into the hands of the Neroca goalkeeper who dived well to his right.
The home side had half-chances to their name in the second half but none of them was put away. A corner at the hour-mark was headed over the bar by Aryn Williams who rose highest at the near-post.
Felix Chidi missed Neroca’s best chance from inside the box in the 90th minute of the game when he shot inches wide.
Minerva Punjab managed to cruise to a win despite scoring only one goal as they defended valiantly in the final moments of the game to pick up all three points in a vital clash and to extend their lead at the top of the table.
The table toppers will once again be put to the test against East Bengal in an away game on January 30. Neroca will now take on Churchill Brothers in an away game on the same date.