Around this time last year, Minerva Punjab were making waves as the first team from north India since JCT to be competing in the I-League. They were competitive all season but never exceptional. Now, a year on, they sit second in the league table and are looking good to emulate JCT's feat of winning the national title in 1997. They have won five of their seven games, with their only defeat coming away to defending champions Aizawl FC. On Saturday, they registered their second away win against Gokulam Kerala.
Club owner Ranjit Bajaj says the difference this year has simply been in the longer preparation time available to the team, who played their debut season last year as late inductees. "You can't give a brand-new team 12 days," says Bajaj. "Last time we started playing 'normal' football after seven games -- the season was over, basically. This time, because we had time, we could play a pre-season and scout players properly and get them fit as well. The fitness level of our team is one thing -- we play much better in the second half in all the matches. That's the difference."
It's a theory that is hard to dispute: Minerva have scored six of their 10 goals this season in the second half, with four of them at the 80-minute mark or later. The star turn has come from two foreign strikers -- William Opoku of Ghana and Bhutan national team captain Chencho Gyeltshen, with three goals and two, respectively.
Coach Khogen Singh says the team focuses on "single match to single match, and not explain too much". "The idea is to give 100 per cent of your talent on the pitch," says Khogen, a former left-back for Air India under Bimal Ghosh in the early years of the National Football League (NFL) and who also played for ITI, Bangalore and Vasco. "He [Ghosh] always focused on the single-single game and stayed in the present for the 90 minutes. Tactically and technically sound."
Left-back Abhishek Ambekar, whose darting runs down the flank and ability with long throws have made him a valuable asset, credits the foreign players for the team's performance. "This season, nobody is a big star and everybody is playing with a lot of team spirit and togetherness. That's getting us good games and points," says Ambekar, who like coach Khogen honed his skills under Ghosh, most recently with Mumbai Tigers. "There are good foreign players -- Kassim [captain and midfielder Kassim Aidara], William, Dano [defender Guy Dano] and Chencho, who has been one of the goal scorers. They are all very nice. In the pre-season matches, they have been very focused. Everyone is aiming for the title."
Bajaj calls Chencho the "X-factor" this season. Dubbed the 'Bhutanese Ronaldo' because of his likeness to the Real Madrid and Portugal superstar, Chencho is not the first footballer from a South Asian country to feature in India's top division -- Mohun Bagan, Dempo, Indian Bank and Shillong Lajong have played Sri Lanka's Roshan Perera and Kasun Jayasuriya, and Anil Gurung of Nepal in the past. But his impact with goals and assists, including a perfectly-weighted ball that helped Gagandeep Bali score the winner against Kerala on Saturday, is making him a standout signing for Minerva.
"I have a good support from fans [back home]. I came here because of the pressure of fans. They always wanted me to play in India," says Chencho, who was put in touch with Minerva through a Facebook message dropped by a Spanish agent he knew. "In India, football is improving day by day. All of the other countries are watching the ISL and I-League. Before, cricket was the most popular game in India, but now football is also coming up."
Thanks to Chencho, many football fans in Bhutan are rallying behind Minerva, and Bajaj says the football federation there has officially thrown its support behind their captain and his team in the I-League. The interest around Minerva and their matches gets amplified due to Chencho's involvement in the league. "Some fans came to watch games in Ludhiana [and] Goa," says Chencho. "Most of the fans who come here are those who are studying here in India. Even back home, many fans are asking me about fixtures and some might come towards the end of the season."
The big tests for Minerva in the coming week will be the away games to Kolkata powerhouses Mohun Bagan (January 10) and East Bengal (January 13). Khogen wants his team to stay in the moment, his philosophy a near carbon-copy of what used to make his first coach Bimal Ghosh's teams difficult to break down.
"Away games are always tough games with teams like Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, but football gives you [a chance] to trust in yourself and play your own game," he says. "Mainly we are focusing on either taking one or three [points]. We are focusing on fitness. Hold a game up to 60 or 70 minutes, and then take it to a definite end. They are young guys, so we need to make 11 players combine into one -- their thinking needs to be one. They are young and that's why they need to be given that confidence. Then they will automatically be one of the top teams."