On a hectic penultimate day of the I-League 2022-23, Mohammedan Sporting displayed the best performance, beating bottom-placed Sudeva Delhi 5-2, but Aizawl FC gained the most, despite dropping points in a 2-2 draw with Mumbai Kenkre FC.
NEROCA FC went down at home to Churchill Brothers 0-1 while Real Kashmir FC beat Rajasthan United 1-0 as four matches were played across the country on a busy day.
Mohammedan Sporting registered a 5-2 win over wooden spooners Sudeva Delhi at the Kishore Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata. Nigerian forward Abiola Dauda's hat trick was the main reason behind that emphatic victory.
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But they had to be content with the eighth spot in the final standings as later on Saturday, Aizawl fought for a 2-2 draw against the other relegated team - Mumbai Kenkre FC.
Thus, both Mehrajuddin Wadoo's Mohammedan Sporting and Caetano Pinho's former Hero I-League champions finished on 26 points, but Aizawl got the seventh position because of a better head-to-head record. Their win over the Kolkata side on Republic Day in Aizawl proved to be decisive.
It means Aizawl will meet either Gokulam Kerala FC or TRAU FC in the Super Cup qualifiers on April 6.
Real Kashmir (34 points) ensured the fifth spot with a 1-0 victory over Rajasthan United at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi. Ernest Boateng scored the all-important goal for the Snow Leopards in the seventh minute of the match.
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Despite having better ball possession and creating more chances, they could not increase the margin. Gifton Noel-Williams' boys will now play Churchill Brothers in the other Hero Super Cup qualifier on April 6.
CHURCHILL WIN 1-0
The Goan side defeated NEROCA in an ill-tempered match at the Khuman Lampak Stadium earlier in the day.
Momo Cisse's 22nd-minute goal made the difference from the spot. There was enough drama involved in the penalty, too. NEROCA goalkeeper Soram Porei, who had a great match, saved Cisse's penalty kick diving to his left but the assistant referee ruled he had left his line before he should have. So it had to be retaken and Cisse made no mistake the second time around.
The match heated up in the second half as frustration grew among both ranks and the players got physical. It culminated in ugly scenes after the game was over. Nonganba Singh and David Simbo of NEROCA, and Sharif Mukhammad and Ponif Vaz of Churchill Brothers were shown the red card for a scuffle after the final whistle.
Churchill's win did a favour to Pushpender Kundu's Rajasthan United as they could finish ninth ahead of NEROCA despite the loss to Real Kashmir. This is also a result of head-to-head records.
Rajasthan had beaten NEROCA on both occasions this season. Kundu's men will take on the Imphal side once again in the Super Cup qualifying play-off on April 3. That winner will take on Sreenidi Deccan on April 5 for a place in the group stage. The Deccan Warriors are set to finish the league in the second spot irrespective of Sunday's result against Gokulam.
Sunday's results will also decide Mohammedan Sporting's opponents in the Super Cup qualifiers on April 5. If TRAU go down to champions RoundGlass Punjab, then the Malabarians will finish third and take on Wadoo's boys even if they lose tomorrow. But if TRAU win and the Kerala side drop points, then they will be Mohammedan's opponents.
However, the way Mohammedan finished the I-League on Saturday, they could be a tricky side to face in the Hero Super Cup. Dauda acted like the perfect poacher, utilising all the defensive errors made by Sankarlal Chakraborty's boys.
He scored one goal in the first half and two in the second. Midfielder Nikola Stojanovic added to Sudeva's misery in the 77th minute. Then substitute Faisal Ali scored a few seconds before the final whistle to make it a five-star victory.
Solo efforts in the second half, within four minutes of each other, by Argentine forward Alexis Gomez and midfielder R Lawmnasangzuala gave Sudeva what turned out to be two consolation goals.
At the Cooperage Stadium in Mumbai, Caetano Pinho's Aizawl found the going tough against Akhil Kothari's boys. Ranjeet Pandre put the home team in the lead in the 25th minute. Aizawl got a penalty soon after the breather, but Ramdinthara wasted it, shooting straight into the hands of Kenkre goalkeeper Lovepreet Singh.
Aizawl finally equalised in the 64th minute when Ramdinthara made up for the missed penalty. David Lalhlansanga made it 2-1 for the former champions with a header in the 70th minute. But Francis Nwankwo's 88th-minute goal ended Aizawl's hopes of getting full points.