William Opuku's name will be etched in Minerva Punjab's history books as the 21-year-old Ghana midfielder scored the I-League 2017/18-winning goal in their final matchday outing against Churchill Brothers at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Panchkula on Thursday, March 8.
"Started from the bottom and now here we are," banners at Minerva's home ground read as the Panchkula-based franchise finished on top of the league table with 35 points, three clear of second-placed Neroca FC.
Opoku gave his side the lead as early as in the 15th minute of the game when he slotted in a rebound. Churchill stepped up their aggression when they started after the half-time break, but Minerva were resolute at the back to prevent any effort of a comeback from their opposition.
The Ranjit Bajaj-owned team became the first North Indian club to win the title in the history of the league. Minerva are also the first side from Punjab after JCT Phagwara in 1996 to win India's national football title.
Minerva Punajb are Champions of India! The Chandigarh based side becomes the first Punjabi Club since JCT’s title-winning side in 1996 to win India’s tier Football league!— Khel Now (@KhelNow) March 8, 2018
Well Done. #IndianFootball #HeroILeague #ILeague #KEBvNFC #MPFCvCB pic.twitter.com/UKdkOtrD77
Khogen Singh's side could have wrapped up the business as early as in February but they lost four out of their last six matches, which included a 2-1 defeat to strugglers Chennai City FC on the road on March 2.
Their top-scorer Chenco Gleyshten (7 goals) had suffered a dip in form but he buckled up and scored the only goal in their defeat against Chennai. The Bhutanese international was in fine form on Thursday against Churchill, helping the team dictate play.
Churchill Brothers relegated!
Churchill Brothers, by virtue of their defeat on Thursday, were relegated as they finished ninth in the 10-team table — above Indian Arrows — with only 17 points from 18 matches.
Bagan finish third after draw at Kozhikode
Heading into the final matchday of the I-League, four clubs, including Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, and Neroca FC had chances of clinching the coveted title.
Bagan, who started the final matchday tied at the third spot with East Bengal on 30 points, made a dominant start to their match against Gokulam FC in Kozhikode. League top-scorer Aser Dipanda (13 goals) put them in the lead as early as in the 26th minute. However, the Kerala-based side got the equalizer in the Henry Kisekka's strike in the first half.
League powerhouses Bagan were not able to find the winning goal and eventually finished third with 31 points.
Neroca impress, Khalid Jamil fails to recreate last season's magic with East Bengal
Meanwhile, Neroca and East Bengal missed their chances of winning the title when they played out a 1-1 draw at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium on Thursday.
Felix Chidi's goal in the 42nd minute put Neroca ahead but Dudu Omagbemi equalized in the 73rd minute. Khalid Jamil, who won the I-League with Aizawl FC last season, thus had to settle for a third-place finish with East Bengal.
Neroca's valiant performances, including Thursday's draw at East Bengal's den, helped them finish runners-up.