A few hundred Aizawl FC fans, who had made an arduous journey by road to reach the Jahawarlal Nehru Stadium here hoping to witness their team create history, had to endure a glut of heart-stopping moments as the visitor came from behind to hold host Shillong Lajong FC to a 1-1 draw.
The result ensured the necessary point, making Aizawl the I-League winner and the first champion club of India from the North-East.
Apparently overcome by the pressure of performing, the visitor hardly looked the team that had won 11 of its 17 matches before its final outing and conceded an early goal when Aser Dipanda took Lajong FC ahead early in the first-half. William Lalnunfela, brought in as a replacement after the interval to perk up the attack, became the super-sub for Aizawl scoring the equaliser in the 67th minute.
This was the lone point of celebration for the champion as it weathered a determined opposition that messed a host of scoring opportunities towards the end. Dipanda himself failed to put the ball inside an open goal on successive occasions in the added-time, which if scored would have taken the title to Bengal, where Mohun Bagan had won its match and threatened to snatch the title on a better goal difference.
In the first half, Dipanda (11 goals) showed why he is the leading goal-scorer of the tournament as he got in position to a cross from Samuel Lalmuanpuia and unleashed a powerful header. The ball hit the underside of the crossbar and landed across the line before bouncing out. That was enough for the assistant referee to ensure the legitimacy of the goal putting the Aizawl FC supporters in stoned disbelief.
Visiting coach Khalid Jamil rushed to the match official to protest that Dipanda was off-side but that was a poor justification to the mistake his right-back Lalram Chullova had committed in allowing Samuel deep access into his territory. The absence of suspended right-back Ashutosh Mehta and seasoned midfielder Alfred Jyran seemed to hurt Aizawl FC, which struggled to screen the spate of Lajong’s attacks.
Lajong FC coach Thangboi Singto opted for its usual line-up fielding two foreigners in Cameroonian Dipanda and Japanese midfielder Yuta Kinowaki alongside eight under-22 players. The effervescence of youth was eminently evident in the way the host worked on speed in a flurry of raids that sent the Aizawl defence in total disarray in the first quarter of the action. The goal resulted from one of those offensives clearing up the possibility of an upset. As Aizawl struggled to strike cohesion, Lajong had another chance in the 25th minute off as Issac Chhakchhuak set his swerving free-kick right on target but Albino Gomes dived to his right for a spectacular save and keep Aizawl in the hunt.
Jamil made a clever replacement at the break bringing in Lalnunfela alongside Ivory Coast striker Stephane Kamo to enhance the team’s strike power. The ploy worked well as Lalnunfela created two scoring opportunities — the first in the 55th minute went over and the other in the 60th was disallowed as an off-side — before the slotting home the equaliser in the 67th minute. The opportunity came to him as the ball rebounded off the post as Stephane Kamo made the first attempt at the goal.