Last week, following their defeat to eventual champions Minerva Punjab, Goa’s fallen giants Churchill Brothers were relegated from the I-League. Operating on a budget that is rumoured to be roughly Rs 70 lakh, Churchill’s hastily-assembled team couldn’t match the other teams in terms of quality.
Gokulam Kerala were only slightly better. Playing their debut season, Kerala – also with a budget of less than Rs 1 crore – finished seventh in a 10-team league. Both teams were expected to struggle in their Super Cup qualifying matches against Indian Super League sides Delhi Dynamos and NorthEast United respectively on Thursday.
Delhi, after all, have players like Kalu Uche – the Nigerian striker who scored three times in the 2010 World Cup while NorthEast United are managed by Avram Grant, who took Chelsea to the Champions League final in 2007. Both these teams have spent close to Rs 30 crore on players. And while money does not necessarily guarantee success, it ensured Delhi and NorthEast had way better quality compared to the ragtap group of players assembled by Churchill and Kerala. However, the I-League strugglers defied all odds to beat the cash-rich ISL sides to enter the final round of the Super Cup, a knockout tournament where top teams of I-League and ISL will face-off against each other.
Churchill rode on Trinidadian striker Willis Plaza’s double strike to beat Delhi 2-1 while Kerala blanked NorthEast 2-0 — also via two goals from Ugandan striker Henry Kisekka — on the first day of the qualifying round matches at Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium. The qualifying round matches are being played among teams which had finished from 7th to 10th positions in the I-League as well as the ISL. The top six finishers in each of the league have been handed direct entry of the main round which begins at the same venue on March 31.
Churchill will now face Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan – another I-League team – on April 1 in their round of 16 match while Gokulam play ISL finalists Bengaluru FC on the same day.
In the first day of the match, Plaza cancelled out Uche’s fifth-minute strike by scoring his first goal of the match in the 32nd minute before finding the the match-winner in the 106th minute as the qualifying round match went into extra time after both sides were locked in a 1-1 stalemate in 90 minutes. With the win, Churchill redeemed their wretched season somewhat after they finished ninth in the 10-team I-League. For Delhi Dynamos, this was their first loss after the six-match unbeaten run in the ISL. They had finished at eighth position in the ISL.
In the second match of the day, Kisekka’s goals in the 43rd and 75th minutes gave Gokulam a 2-0 win over NorthEast. Both sides were evenly matched till two minutes before the breather when Arjun Jayaraj sent a brilliant through ball for Kisekka on the right side and the Ugandan took a shot at goal from the right edge of the box and found the back of the net.
The second goal also came from the same combination. Arjun Jayaraj’s square pass from the right found Kisekka who made no mistake in putting the ball into the net.