Trinidad & Tobago striker Willis Deon Plaza scored a brace to join Chennai’s Pedro Manzi at the top of the Hero I-League’s goal scoring charts and complete a brilliant comeback for his side, late in the second half, to pull off a crucial win over Neroca FC.
Neroca seemed to have sealed three points in Saturday’s third and final Hero I-League game, thanks to a Varney Kallon strike in the first half before Plaza struck twice in the last five minutes to break their hearts.
It was an amazing turnaround and with this win, the former two-time champions reached 25 points from 14 games to be placed third on the table, five behind league leaders Chennai. Neroca would rue what might have been and remained in the fifth position with 21 points.
Churchill made one change in the playing eleven from the previous game as Nenad Novakovic came in place of Hussein Eldor in deep defence. Neroca’s Spanish coach Manuel Fraile, on the other hand, made two, replacing Saran Singh and Ashok with Tondomba Singh and Meetei.
In a thrilling end to end encounter, as was expected from two attack-minded sides, Plaza got his first clear chance of the game in the 13th minute when he latched on to a defensive error and got into a scoring position inside the box but narrowly missed the target after beating the keeper.
In the 18th minute, Neroca’s Australian import Aryn Williams turned one around towards goal off a corner, but it was comfortable for Kithan to collect.
Neroca took the lead quite against the run of play and for the umpteenth time in this edition of the Hero I-League, it resulted from a set-piece. Malem took the free-kick from outside the Churchill box from the left flank and floated in a right-footed curler towards the near post.
Liberian defender Kallon had come in specifically for this routine and got ahead of his marker to deflect the ball into the Churchill net past keeper James Kithan. Churchill looked to hit back immediately and Dawda Cessay got at the end of an Anthony Wolfe pass and controlled beautifully to float it back in towards the Trinidadian Wolfe, who he found in space for a free header. Wolfe’s effort sailed agonisingly over the bar.
Then in the 40th minute, the hosts came close to scoring twice. First Richard Costa’s shot from inside the box went just wide and then a Dawda Cessay effort was collected by Lalit Thapa in the Neroca goal. The half ended with another rasping drive by the Gambian Cessay which was parried away by Thapa.
Churchill began with a flurry in the second half but it was Neroca who had the first gilt-edged opportunity of the half when Subhash found Katsumi Yusa with a cross from the left flank and the Japanese winger’s angled header just missed the post.
Lalit Thapa then brought off a couple of saves, first off a Cessay free-kick and then off a Khalid Aucho pile driver. In the 66th minute, Katsumi fed a lovely cross by Nigerian striker Felix Chidi, but he failed to trap properly and Kithan collected the ball from his feet bravely.
Then Malem’s free-kick in the 72nd minute, curled from outside the wall but again missed narrowly although Kithan seemed to have it covered. Plaza then turned the game and the result on its head with two telling strikes.
Dawda Cessay executed a perfect pass from midfield sighting Plaza’s run in between two defenders. The Trinidadian, who has been in clinical finishing form, unleashed a left-footed strike across Kithan and into the Neroca net. This was in the 85th minute.
Then in the first minute of added time, substitute Israil Gurung floated the ball in from a corner and Plaza jumped over his marker near the first post and found the back of the net again with a brilliant header.
It was one of the best games of the season and Neroca would consider themselves unlucky to be on the losing side after coming so close, but Churchill with the form they are displaying seems to be in prime position to take advantage of any let up from leaders Chennai going forward.