Aizawl, Mizoram: Defending champions Minerva Punjab FC registered their first win of the 12th Hero I-League campaign, overcoming Aizawl FC 2-1 on the artificial turf of the Rajiv Gandhi stadium in Aizawl on Saturday.
Two headers off two corners by centre-back Lancine Toure ensured that despite a late penalty conversion by Leonce Dodoz for the home side, the ‘Warriors’ from Punjab logged a full three points from a spirited encounter.
The champions were clearly bolstered by the induction of two Nigerians, Donatus Edafe and Bala Alihassan Dahir, the former in particular having a huge impact on Minerva’s performance compared to their last two games.
Hosts’ coach Gift Raikhan started Ivorian Dodoz and David Lalrinmuana on the day in place of Albert and Lalrinfela while Minerva brought in Bala Dahir and Edafe, replacing them with Akash Sangwan and Makan Chothe as well as Moinuddin in place of Ivorian Alexandre who had begun the last game.
Dodoz cut in beautifully inside the box from the left and his effort brought about a save from Bhaskar Roy in the Minerva goal, who padded it away for a corner. In the sixth minute, Toure fouled David in a dangerous position outside the Minerva box. His free-kick on target was well collected by Bhaskar.
Minerva then got a break when Toure’s header off a William Opoku corner gave Minerva their first goal of the 12th Hero I-League and the lead.
The goal shifted the momentum towards Minerva, and they put up a splendid display of fast counter attacks and innovative set pieces. Edafe’s ball skills and enterprise, in particular, will be a good omen for Irishman Paul Munster’s side going forward.
In the 12th minute, Moinuddin was found free inside the box by Opoku, who in spite of having time and space to control, chose to go for a first timer but the ball lobbed over the Aizawl bar. Moinuddin then got one into the net of a cleverly-taken corner, but was called for offside.
Aizawl too had their chances and In the 24th minute, Dodoz found Bektur inside the box with a wonderful pass and the Kyrgystani turned his defender and was ready to pull the trigger, but Arshdeep’s slide, left Bektur denied.
That brought about a bit of rough play and resulted in a couple of bookings on either side. Novin Gurung was booked for a rash tackle on Moinuddin, who had to be eventually replaced by Akash Sangwan and Philip Njoku also picked up a yellow card for Minerva.
Both sides missed a couple of more chances, but Minerva took their one goal lead into the lemon break.
Aizawl again began the half stronger with Kromah striking a volley from just outside the box which went over. However, just like in the first half, Minerva came back into the game and Lancine Toure got his second headed strike in the 59th minute, again off a William Opoku corner which pierced Gurpreet in the Aizawl goal and the last defender on the line, going in on the bounce.
The rest of the half was about Hero of the Match Toure missing a couple of more headers from corners for his hattrick and Kromah for Aizawl muffing up another couple of chances.
As the game seemed to be meandering towards a Minerva victory, the home team got a penalty to pull one back. A long ranger from distance found the outstretched hand of Akashdeep Singh inside the box and referee Raktim Saha had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Dodoz converted despite Bhaskar Roy guessing the right away.
Aizawl did try to press for the equalizer but Minerva, who had in between bolstered their defence by bringing in Deepak Devrani for Dahir, held out for a deserving first win.