The 2017-18 I-League culminated on its final day with NEROCA FC finishing runners-up and East Bengal fourth on the table as both sides played out a 1-1 draw in at the Saltlake Stadium in Kolkata on Thursday, March 8.
Felix Chidi provided the lead for the visitors in the 42nd minute but in-form striker MacPherlin Dudu Omagbemi managed to equalise in the 73rd minute as results elsewhere dictated the fate of the title.
After a crucial 2-2 draw away at Shillong, Khalid Jamil made six changes. Eduardo Ferreira was available after serving his suspension and Jobby Justin was given a chance alongside Dudu Omgabemi as Ansumana Kromah started from the bench.
Gift Raikhan did not have the services of Gouramangi Singh and Aryn Williams to call upon. While club captain Lalit Thapa made a comeback between the sticks, Nick Ward made his debut for NEROCA on Indian soil as a replacement for Aryn Williams.
While East Bengal had seven shots on target in the first half, NEROCA FC’s solitary attempt at the target yielded a positive result.
But, even before the goal, the hosts missed three chances in a span of four minutes. In the 35th minute, Dudu Omagbemi failed to break the deadlock from close range and in the very next minute, Jobby Justin had an empty net in front of him as Lalit Thapa had come off his line but the Keralite missed a golden chance. Thapa yet again came good and this time it was Mahmoud Al Amna who shot straight at the keeper.
Raikhan introduced Pritam Singh for Gopi Yumnam in the 41st minute and that proved to be a lucky stroke of genius. Nick Ward retrieved the ball from his own half and released Ashok Singh on the right flank. A quick pass back to Ward and the Australian sent a through ball to Felix Chidi inside the box. The Nigerian got the better of Arnab Mondal and slotted past Ubaid C.K. from tight space.
The first half ended with NEROCA FC in the lead due to a solitary goal by Felix Chidi.
Right after the change of ends, Dudu’s call for a penalty was turned down as he alleged Varney Kallon had handled the ball in the area. Earlier, Jamil had substituted Yami Longvah, a U-22 player to bring on Laldanmawia Ralte to fill some energy in the flanks.
Ansumana Kromah too was included in the mix-up with half an hour to go. Dudu, Katsumi Yusa and Al Amna all three had opportunities to make their penetration into the opposition half count but the NEROCA defence stayed strong.
The goal did come and it was none other than Dudu who equalised for the home side. Lalramchullova’s cross into the box had the Nigerian leap the highest to head the ball in for his eighth of the season and seventh in the last three games.
Cavin Lobo was brought in with a little more than ten minutes to go for the tie. The equalizer had a shoulder-dropping effect on NEROCA’s solidity as players on both ends of the pitch had lost confidence. Nick Ward only had the keeper to beat but he chose to shoot wide.
East Bengal were robbed of a glaring penalty in the 90th minute as Katsumi Yusa’s flag-kick landed on Saran Singh’s arm in the box.
However, the results and luck were not to be with either of the sides in Kolkata as NEROCA, who were only promoted to the top-tier this season stole a point to reach 32 points and finished second, three points behind champions Minerva Punjab FC. East Bengal tied with archrivals Mohun Bagan on points (31 points each) but ended fourth with an inferior head to head record this season.