2017-18 Indian I-League
  • Eduardo Soares (66')
  • Katsumi Yusa (72')
  • William Lalnunfela (74', 90'+6')

William helps Aizawl make a point... and secure another

If you believe in omens, Tuesday night at the Salt Lake Stadium must have been exciting if you are a fan of reigning I-League champions Aizawl FC.

Aizawl were beginning their 2017-18 campaign away to East Bengal -- just as they had done eight months earlier in the previous season. They had capped the last season with a dramatic away draw to Shillong Lajong thanks to William Lalnunfela, and William did the star turn again on Tuesday, yanking his team back from the brink to help hold mighty East Bengal to a 2-2 draw in the season opener for both teams.

It was a game of fluctuating fortunes, and waxing and waning fluency, but one you couldn't afford to take your eyes off for a second. Much of the talk before the game had been about how former Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil had taken away some of the best talent from last season from Mizoram to Kolkata -- Mahmoud Al-Amna, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Lalramchullova were all influential in midfield and defence for the hosts -- but the biggest impact inside the first hour was made by a former East Bengal player Avilash Paul, keeping goal on the night for Aizawl.

East Bengal's troika of attackers -- Willis Plaza, former Mohun Bagan man Katsumi Yusa and Brandon -- were opening up spaces inside the Aizawl half with Al-Amna pulling his weight just behind them, and it was Avilash who kept his team in the game with some courageous goalkeeping throughout, stopping powerful shots and coming out to intersect incisive passes.

East Bengal were unlucky once in the first half when Plaza beat Avilash but failed to beat the post behind him, but then it appeared to even out when Eduardo Ferreira scored from a good corner routine, and then a Mohammed Rafique shot deflected off Katsumi to pull East Bengal 2-0 ahead.

This is where Aizawl's resolve came to the fore. They had been pro-active right from the start of the game, with coach Paulo Coelho Meneses opting for an adventurous 4-1-3-2, with Alfred Jaryan keeping his former teammates Al-Amna and Brandon in check. He was ably assisted by David Lalrinmuana, another old Aizawl hand who had left for East Bengal after leading Aizawl to the Federation Cup final in 2016 but has returned now. The visitors weren't afraid to throw themselves about and picked up a few cards in the process.

It was William who made the biggest difference between the sides. A quiet prayer just before the second half was perhaps as much in contemplation as well as anticipation of the heroic role he would play before the night was through, exploding into attacking positions from every corner of the pitch.

If Aizawl won the last I-League, it was down to then-coach Jamil planning meticulously for each game, and then a young squad going out into the field and running their socks off for their coach.

If Tuesday night is any indication, they might have lost the cream of the team that brought home the I-League on the last day of April, but they have created an identity of a club that is prepared to do it all over again. And for that alone, they have shown the heart of a champion.