Debutants Neroca FC squandered an opportunity to provisionally go top of the table as they were held to an entertaining 0-0 draw by defending champions Aizawl FC in an I-League encounter at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium here on Saturday.
In front of 20,345 vociferous spectators, the home team were guilty of wasting a flurry of chances on either side of half-time as they had to be content with one point which meant they remained second in the points table with 28 points from 15 games.
Neroca’s hopes of winning the I-League also suffered a jolt as they only have three more matches to go, including a difficult away fixture against East Bengal.
Surprise league leaders Minerva Punjab FC have played a game less and are one point ahead of Neroca. Aizawl, sixth in the points table, now have 17 points from 13 games.
The hosts made three changes from their previous game as Dhananjoy Singh, Aryn Glen Williams and Pritam Singh made way for Govin Singh Moirangthem, Nedo Turkovic and Yumnam Gopi Singh respectively.
As for the visitors, Japanese Yugo Kobayashi’s exclusion was surprising and hinted at coach Paulo Menezes taking a defensive appoach.
Injured C. Lalrosanga and Albert Zohmingmawia also did not take part with Lalthathanga Khawlhring, David Lalrinmuana and Shylo Mamsawmtluanga slotted in.
Neroca dominated proceedings in the opening exchanges. Their coach Gift Raikhan wanted to exploit Aizawl’s weakness at the back with only one recognised centre back, Masih Saighani, starting for the defending champions.
Saighani arrived this morning after getting the Protected Area Permit (PAP) required for Afghan nationals to enter the state of Manipur, on Friday evening.
The 31-year old centre back showed signs of weariness early on, when in the seventh minute, Felix Chidi robbed him of the ball near the penalty box and set up U-22 player Yumnam Gopi Singh who failed to get a touch on the ball with visiting goalkeeper Avilash Paul collecting it.
Chidi then found space between two defenders outside the box but his left-footed attempt went wide of the target.
Aizawl struggled to string together cohesive moves with only their Romanian recruit Andrei Ionescu doing all the spadework.
In the 24th minute, coach Raikhan replaced Govin Singh with Ashok Singh.
Two minutes later, Saran Singh’s free kick for the hosts found Nedo Turkovic but the Bosnian striker failed to connect.
Aizawl’s best chance of the half fell to Leonce Dodoz but the Ivorian striker headed wide from David Lalrinmuana’s corner.
In the first half added time, Neroca should have taken the lead but Turkovic inexplicably poked wide after Subhash Singh did ever so well to cross for the Romanian.
At halftime, both teams were locked 0-0. In the 54th minute, Australian playmaker Aryn Williams came in for Turkovic.
It took an hour for the next good move to take place after the break. Chidi took a swipe from distance after Aizawl’s makeshift defenders failed to clear the ball, with the Nigerian’s effort missing the target by a whisker.
Seven minutes later, Neroca players claimed a penalty when Dodoz got his hand to an aerial ball inside the box but referee Tanmoy Dhar waved play on.
Aizawl tried to catch Neroca off guard on the counter in the 73rd minute and Dodoz put the ball in the back of the net but was adjudged offside.
Chidi spurned a gilt-edged opportunity when Aizawl keeper Avilash saved well from a one on one situation.