VASCO Giant-slayers Real Kashmir FC are in with a chance to go top of the points table if they secure a win over second-placed Churchill Brothers in their I-League clash here on Thursday.
Both teams shared the spoils in the first-leg match at the TRC stadium in Srinagar, with the game ending in a 0-0 stalemate.
Churchill and Kashmir are tied on 28 points after 14 matches but the home team is ahead on the back of a better goal difference.
Debutants Real Kashmir have proven to be quite dogged defensively and have not tasted defeat in the last couple of months owing to clever strategic switches in the team brought about by their Scottish coach David Robertson.
They will, however, miss the services of Ivorian Gnohere Krizo, who scored the winner in the last game against table-toppers Chennai and has been an important influence in their attack.
On being asked about Krizo, Robertson said, "Krizo has been suspended so it can affect the game."
"In our last match, we overpowered Chennai but tomorrow's game will be difficult. We are focusing on one game at a time. Churchill is a good team to play against. The next six matches will be difficult as all the top teams are good," he added.
That second win over Chennai by Kashmir has thrown the title race wide open. Kashmir have conceded only seven goals so far, with eight clean sheets.
They are the best defensive side in the league and they have proven that again and again.
Churchill Brothers, on the other hand, have impressed one and all with their relentless attacking displays and as a result, it is set up for a cracker at the Tilak Maidan.
Churchill, aspiring for a third Hero I-League triumph, are at their best this season, having been beaten only twice. They have won eight matches and drawn four.
More importantly, Churchill, under the guidance of Romanian coach Petre Gigiu, have demonstrated some attractive football and apart from Plaza's sublime goal-scoring form, Gambian playmaker Dawda Cessay has also been in excellent touch this season.
Churchill have scored 26 goals this season and are the second highest goal-scoring team after Chennai City, who lead with 31 goals.
According to Churchill Brothers coach Petre Gigiu, "Every game is very important because if we lose any game right now, we will be out of the title race. We need to be in the fight and our next match is going to be a tough match.
Sloppy Mohun Bagan hold Gokulam Kerala to 2-2 draw
Mohun Bagan's title aspiration took another hit as Gokulam Kerala held them to a 2-2 draw in I-League on Wednesday at the Salt Lake Stadium.
Shilton D'Silva headed home the opener in the 18th minute but an own-goal by Lalchhawnkima (21') and a good finish by Marcus Joseph (24') put the visitors in the driving seat. Aser Dipanda scored at the hour-mark to rescue a point for the hosts.
Khalid Jamil made three alterations to the side that went down in the Kolkata Derby. Arijit Bagui, Azharuddin Mallick and Shilton DSilva got the nod ahead of Abhishek Ambekar, Pintu Mahata and Darren Caldeira respectively.
Gift Raikhan made four changes to the starting XI that earned a point against Minerva Punjab in their last match. New recruit Fabien Vorbe got a start along with Mohamed Irshad, Bijesh Balan, and Suhair VP.
Gokulam could have gone ahead in the very first minute when Marcus Joseph fired a shot from distance and Shilton Paul, who was caught off his line, stumbled while tracking back. Luck favoured Bagan as his shot missed the target by a whisker.
Gokulam maintained their ascendency as they continuously out-manoeuvred Bagan's midfield.
It took some time for the hosts to get a foot-hold of the match and they drew first blood on the 18th minute when Sony Norde delivered a curler from a flag-kick and Shilton D'Silva nodded it home.
But Gokulam got back in no time as Lalchhawnkima's misplaced clearance of a Bijesh Balan cross nestled at the back of the net.
Three minutes later Joseph fired his team into the lead after he latched on to a pass from Suhair VP in the attacking third and chipped over Paul to score his third goal in as many matches. Eze Kingsley was once again found wanting as he reacted late to Joseph's run and could not recover in time.
Minutes before the end of first-half, Dipanda missed a header from six yards despite being completely unmarked.
Bagan started to show some urgency in the second half but were struggling to make forays into the attacking third. Omar had a forgettable day in the office as he was tightly marked by Fabien Vorbe.
Bagan did equalise on the hour-mark when Dipanda finally found the net after he got his head to a lobbed ball by Kisekka from the edge of the box.
The introduction of Mehtab Hossain added some steel into the midfield for Bagan but their lack of cutting edge in the attacking third did not help in their search for the winner.
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