Aizawl FC have played themselves into the annals of Indian football by landing the I-League crown after a 1-1 away draw against Shillong Lajong on Sunday.
Though Aser Pierrick Dipanda (9') got the lead for Lajong, William Lalnunfela (67') scored a historic goal to give Aizawl the point they needed to finish top of the table.
Khalid Jamil's side were without the services of influential skipper Alfred Jaryan and Ashutosh Mehta and the duo were replaced with Lalruatthara and Laltanpuia. Kamo Bayi started up front while Jayesh Rane and Mahmoud Al Amna took on the creative mantle. Zohmingliana Ralte and Eze Kingsley were the preferred centre-backs.
For Thangboi Singto's side, Aser Pierrick Dipanda returned to the starting XI while Isaac Vanmalsawma and Yuta Kinowaki were deployed in midfield. Redeem Tlang was preferred on the wings ahead of Rupert Nongrum.
Amidst a charged atmosphere, it was Shillong Lajong who began brightly. They looked at ease and focused while Aizawl were all over the place at the beginning. The excellent start paid off as Aser Pierrick Dipanda scored his 11th goal of the season to raise concerns for Khalid Jamil. Redeem Tlang released Samuel Lalmuanpuia down the left and his cross into the box was diverted into the net by a brilliant header from the Cameroonian striker.
The goal seemed to have rattled the Aizawl players who started to get into arguments with the referee and seemed to lose focus. Unsurprisingly, Albino Gomes was called upon to make a diving save from Isaac's freekick after Dicka was brought down by Eze Kingsley.
Meanwhile, Mahmoud Al Amna also missed a glorious chance and Aizawl started to settle into the game. In the 29th minute, Kamo Bayi made his way into the box and was rudely barged off the ball by Nim Dorjee Tamang but the referee Pranjal Banerjee waved off the appeals from the Aizawl players, much to the chagrin of the away fans.
Bayi could have scored a goal eight minutes later when he came up with a brilliant backheel from close range which beat Vishal Kaith but bounced back off Chinglensana Singh on the line.
Aizawl finished the half on the ascendancy but were not able to find an equaliser as the teams broke for half-time.
They started the second half on the front-foot as well, with Rane and Kamo combining well but they seemed to lack the killer touch. On the other hand, Dicka was a constant thorn in their side and his runs were giving Kingsley all sorts of problems on the night.
Ten minutes after the restart, Jayesh had a chance to bring Aizawl level, when he had the ball presented to him in the box, but the bounce made him misjudge it, and he ended up ballooning it.
At the hour-mark, Lalnunfela managed to head it in, but it was ruled offside, to their chagrin.
He would make up for it seven minutes later though, as Kinowaki's cheap foul on Al Amna resulted in a freekick that was swung in towards Lalnunfela at the back post. He remained calm and nodded it in, and checked at the linesman - flag down - before reeling away in celebration!
Aizawl could sense that the win was only minutes away now, and realized that they were almost there, but a coat of paint could have sent the folks down in Kolkata celebrating! Deep into stoppage time, Redeem Tlang broke down the left-hand side of the box, and cut it back to Dicka, who had an empty goal to aim at thanks to a wandering Albino Gomes. He tapped it goalwards, but it hit the post and came out - leaving everyone witnessing that gasping!
But no more chances for the hosts, and Aizawl held on to become the first north-eastern side to be crowned the I-League champions!