When the I League defending champions Minerva Punjab FC open their campaign in this year’s I League against Churchill Brothers at Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Panchkula, on Sunday, the Punjab team will only have 11 players from the last year’s title winning squad. With foreign players Chencho Gyeltshen, who was the third highest goal-scorer last season, Kassim Aidera, Bazie Armand and Eric Dano coupled with Indian players like Gagandeep Bali and Sukhdev Singh joining other clubs, it’s like a new start for the Punjab outfit.
“Yes, there will be pressure on us. But then that’s what has been the plan for Minerva Punjab FC in the two seasons. Some big names have left but they became stars after coming to Minerva Punjab FC. And that’s what the focus will be for this year’s I league too. Every player has the hunger to represent the club and this hunger motivates them. As the technical director, I want to see these players play at Asian level and for the country in future. They know that if they beat us, it will be huge for them and such wins count special for the opposition. And that’s why we also need to play our best game. We won the Punjab Super league for the first time and it also helped us to try out the combinations,” said Paul Munster, technical director of Minerva Punjab FC after the jersey launch of the club in Chandigarh.
The Daun village-based club finished ninth in their maiden I League season in 2016-17 before winning the title in January this year. Minerva Punjab FC claimed the title with 11 wins in 18 matches in the 10-team league. Bhutanese forward Chencho Gyeltshen was the leading scorer for the team with seven goals apart from William Opoku scoring six goals in the league. This year’s I League will see the participation of 11 teams and Minerva Punjab FC will attempt to become the first team to win successive titles since East Bengal achieved the feat in 2004. Apart from recruiting Indian U-17 World Cup team players Md Shahjahan and Nongdamba Naorem, the team has also got the presence of Japanese player Yu Kuboki, who signed with the club after a transfer from Australian club Sydney Olympic FC. The team will play 10 matches at Tau Devi Lal Stadium. While last year’s head coach Khogen Singh also left the club, Sachin Badhadhe has now donned the role of head coach.
“We have got the depth for playing consistently in the 11-team format. There are no stars in the team but we rely on combinations and exploiting the weakness of opponents. The squad of 27 players also sees the presence of players like Japanese Yu Kuboki apart from foreign recruits Nsabimana Aimable apart from last year’s sixth-highest scorer William Opoku. The Indian youngsters too are eager to perform well and with goal-keeper Arshdeep Singh being fully fit, we will rely heavily on him. The U-17 World Cup team-members also bring some young talent in the team and we will take it one match at a time in the league. The first two matches against Churchill Brothers and Real Kashmir FC will crucial for us as it would set the momentum for us,” Badhadhe said.
The Punjab outfit has also roped in former JCT coach and player Sukhwinder Singh as the technical director. Singh was the coach of the JCT team which won the inaugural edition of I league in 1996-1997. “Minerva Punjab FC has been the best thing which has happened with Punjab Football after JCT won in 1996-1997 season. Punjab has got the talent and the way Minerva Punjab FC tapped the talent and won the title last year speaks volumes about the club. When JCT won the title, we too saw a lot of players like Bhaichung Bhutia, IM Vijayan and others opting to play for other clubs in the next season. But we had a talent of 40-45 players who played for India. We won the federation the next year and we need to produce such talents in Punjab. It will be difficult to defend the title but the Minerva Punjab FC has the strength to do it,” said Singh.