I-League: Minerva begin title defence vs Churchill at home (Preview)
Panchkula : Defending Champions Minerva Punjab FC, begin their I-League title defence with a home game against Goan giants Churchill Brothers Sports Club at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium here on Sunday.
The ‘Warriors' from Punjab have a 2-1 head to head advantage going into the game with the former two-time winners.
Both teams have new strategists at the helm in the form of Irishman Paul Munster for the defending champions and Romanian Petre Gigiu for the Goans and with new look squads from last year, it will be interesting to see what impressions they form at the beginning of the season.
Technical Director and UEFA Pro-license holder coach Paul Munster is a 36-year old who played as striker successfully in Canada and comes to India after successful coaching stints in Sweden with youth teams.
It should hold them in good stead because Minerva is known for its good youth setup as well as for scouting and nurturing good young talent, in their brief but impressive history so far.
"We are the champions and so every team will be up against us. The players need to step up. Once the game starts, its all about the two teams and 90 minutes out at the pitch," Munster said.
Minerva's squad for the 12th Hero I-League once again reflects the focus on youth. In a potentially exciting forward line, 20-year-old sensation from Kohima, Hitova Ayemi, may just be the surprise package this time around for them.
Ayemi will have company in the duo of experienced forward C.S. Sabeeth, who is on a welcome return to form after scoring nine goals for Ozone FC in an impressive second division I-League campaign last year, and Ghanian strike man William Opoku, whose five goals last year played a key part in Minerva's title win.
Speaking of exciting young talent, the champions also have the likes of Nongdamba Naorem in their ranks, the former Arrows winger who scored one of the best goals ever seen in Indian football in the previous edition last year.
Then there is the ambidextrous winger Makan Winkle Chothe who has made it up the Minerva ranks with virtuoso performances in their youth ranks, Delhi forward Dilliram Sanyasi as well as Souvik Das, a 23-year-old play maker from Bengal.
Deepak Devrani, Ashpreet Singh and Akashdeep Singh will provide the Minerva defence with some continuity while Arshdeep Singh or Bhaskar Roy will likely man the Minerva goal post.
Another quality addition to the champions squad this year will be Japanese forward Yu Kuboki, roped in from Sydney Olympic FC after being in imperious form for them last season.
Forward Akash Sangwan sounded confident, saying: "The biggest advantage is we are playing our first match at home. Our pre-season went really well so everyone is confident. We have played quite a few friendly matches so there's enough understanding between players and coach."
For the Goans, coach Gigiu, who comes on the back of immense success in Algeria, will look no further than Gambian Dawda Cessay and Trinidadian Willis Deon Plaza to score the bulk of the goals for his team.
Churchill have also got back some players who have played for them previously and will be comfortable in the setup. Prominent among them will be midfielder Israel Gurung, who will be in his third stint at the club and forward Uttam Rai who comes back for a second stint.
Churchill's defence should be led by Wayne and Lebanese Hussein Eldor while James Kithan should be a safehouse in goal. Burly Ugandan Khalid Aucho in midfield is the other prominent foreigner to look out for in the Churchill ranks.
Speaking on match day eve, Petre Gigiu shared his thoughts on the game.
"It's a big game for us tomorrow and we want to play good for our supporters. We will surely try not to repeat mistakes from last season. We have five good foreign players this time, so we want to maintain good results," Gigiu said.