Although under pressure, Churchill Brothers managed to continue their winning ways after edging past United Sikkim Football Club 2-1 in their I-League match at Duler Stadium, Mapusa on Sunday.
Full points in this match ensured Churchill’s safety at the top of the league table with 34 points, four points clear of second-placed East Bengal who have played one game more than the Varca-based club. On the other hand relegation continues to haunt United Sikkim who have only 10 points from their 15 outings.
In their first-leg meeting in Sikkim, Churchill were held to a goalless draw despite having a far stronger and experienced squad. Similar could have been the situation today as Sikkim looked quite impressive against their mighty opponents.
Sikkim lost their stopper back Anwar Ali due to a leg injury in the very 3rd minute. The absence of Anwar and Churchill’s pressure of staying on top of the league table ignited the spark in the Goan club early on. Churchill’s most priced jewel in the team Beto gave his side the lead in the 4th minute with a firm header off a Steven Dias flag-kick.
Nathan Hall’s side looked hapless in the initial stages but mugged up well as the match progressed. The early lead hinted towards a big win for Churchill but credit should be given to the young Sikkim side that never lost hope and focus from the game.
In the 38th minute, Lenny Rodrigues nearly made it 2-0 for Churchill. The midfielder slammed Stevens’ low cross inches over the Sikkim goal.
In the second half, Beto made way for Lebanese striker Akram Moghrabi in the attack a substitution that came off as a surprise to many including Churchill boss Churchill Alemao.
Sources in the know however claimed that Alemao and the team’s technical director Subhash Bhowmick had an exchange of words over the substitution of Beto.
Moghrabi failed to make an impact. In the 65th minute he won the ball from Sikkim’s last man Safar Sardar but fumbled in a one to one situation with keeper Monotosh Ghosh who had a very rickety performance today.
Churchill finally put themselves in a safe position in the 71st minute. Left wing back Denzil Franco played a beautiful one two with Henri Antchouet before being brought down in the box by Safar. Franco did seem to fall too easily but managed to convince referee Rahul D’Sa to point to the dreaded spot. Henri who stepped forward to take the kick, sent the keeper the wrong side to make it 2-0.
Four minutes later, Sikkim’s Mexican-American striker John Matkin pulled one back as he drilled a stiff left-footed grounder into the Churchill nets. The goal not only brought pressure on Churchill in the last quarter of the match but also brought back some life in the Sikkim camp.
Churchill, however, managed to absorb the pressure, thanks to some steady defending from their centre backs Ravanan Dharmaraj and Bilal Najjarine. The latter was awarded the Most Valuable Player prize for the match.
Churchill coach Mariano Dias was happy with the win amidst immense pressure of winning and staying on top of the league table. "Even after we scored first we did not play our normal game. We played under a lot of pressure but finally the win makes me feel happy," Mariano said. He also admitted that his side can feel the pressure as there are a handful of teams fighting for the crown. "Every match is important from here on. Pune, East Bengal, Dempo are also trying hard so we need to stay put," he added.
Meanwhile, United Sikkim coach Nathan Hall revealed that he is not under any pressure and is happy with the team’s progress. "I am not under any pressure. Although we lost, we dictated terms most of the time. The players were passing well, creating chances. I am very pleased with the boys as they are a strong young bunch of 30. It is not easy to play under continuously changing conditions. Back at home the players are used to a very cold weather and here it is completely the opposite. With the way they are playing, we only can get better," Hall stated. [NT]