I-League: TRAU, Gokulam and Churchill braced for final-day title charge

Dreams are on hold for TRAU, Gokulam Kerala and Churchill Brothers as the three prepare themselves for a final-day I-League title push.

By Utathya Nag

Featuring in a three-way battle for the I-League 2020-21 title, TRAU FC, Gokulam Kerala FC and Churchill Brothers FC are set to bring the race to a photo-finish on Saturday.

With 14 rounds of the ongoing I-League season done and dusted, the three teams are tied on 26 points with one more match left to play. Gokulam FC and TRAU face each other on the final day in a contest that  could potentially be the title decider. A win will guarantee Gokulam the championship.

Even if Churchill win their final match of the season against Punjab FC and catch up with Gokulam Kerala on points, the Kozhikode-based club will finish above Churchill courtesy their better head-to-head  (a 3-2 loss and a 3-0 win) against the Goan side.

A draw would also do as long as Churchill Brothers also drop points.

Gokulam Kerala’s Italian coach Vincenzo Annese, however, doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.

“This is a final for us, and we need to win this game. We are too excited, we cannot relax. We have just one thing on our mind - we need to win this game. All our hard work has led us here. Now, we have make it count,” Annese said during the pre-match press conference on Friday.

“We have worked very hard to be here. This is a final game, many things can go wrong. We need to focus completely on the game and keep preparing ourselves continuously,” he added.

When Gokulam met TRAU earlier this season, they ran away with a 3-1 win but Annese is convinced the 'final' game will be a tougher contest.

For TRAU, the equation hardly changes. A victory over Gokulam would suffice for them to lift the title unless Churchill can pull off an unlikely victory by at least eight goals against Punjab FC.

With both their meetings this season ending in draws, TRAU and Churchill are tied on head-to-head record but TRAU have an overall +11 goal difference compared to Churchill’s +4, which gives them the advantage.

A draw, however, would see TRAU exit the title race.

TRAU coach L Nandhakumar Singh tried his best to take the pressure off his boys during his pre-match interaction with the media.

“We have been preparing well and we are in a very good mindset before the game. I had said earlier that we would surprise many in the tournament. Our aim was to be in the top-six. Being in the title race is a bonus,” Nandhakumar said.

“After many positive results, I have immense confidence in my team. I cannot predict the result, but I can say my team is looking forward to playing this last game - a title-deciding match for us. I am sure they will give their 100 per cent for the I-League title. Whatever the result, I will be a very happy man,” he added.

The 61-year-old Nandakumar also dubbed Gokulam as one of the strongest teams in the competition and predicted a tough match.

Churchill, though on the same number of points as the other two, face a far more uphill task. Probably the most ideal, and realistic, scenario for them to win the title will be TRAU and Gokulam playing out a draw and Churchill beating Punjab FC.

The odds, however, would have been far more favourable for Churchill if they had beaten TRAU in their last match. The Red Machines, former two-time I-League champions, even took the lead but squandered the advantage as the match ended 1-1.

Churchill Brothers coach Fernando Varela lamented his team’s missed opportunities against TRAU.

“Against TRAU, I think we did everything possible to win,” Varela said. “We came back stronger from the previous defeat. It was one of the best games we played. We showed great spirit, created many chances to score but unfortunately, we could not win.”

The Spaniard also admitted that there was no use looking back.

“We are conscious of what we need to do to win the I-League. Our goal is to beat Punjab. In the meanwhile, we will hope for a draw in the other fixture. 

“Regardless of what happens tomorrow, I believe it is a good season. For me, we are the best team in the league,” Varela stated.