I-League title contenders RoundGlass Punjab FC picked up yet another vital three points, beating NEROCA FC 1-0 at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal.
RoundGlass Punjab are back level on 40 points with Sreenidi Deccan, who hold the first place at the moment thanks to their superior head-to-head record over Staikos Vergetis' side.
It was a display identical to their performance last week against Aizawl, where they also nicked a narrow 1-0 win. Goalkeeper Kiran Limbu picked up the Hero of the Match Award on both occasions.
On Monday, midfielder Ajay Chhetri headed the north Indians into a first-half lead. Though NEROCA responded strongly in the second period, the visitors defended well and ended the Orange Brigade's run of four straight home wins.
RoundGlass Punjab were at it from the get-go and Chencho Gyeltshen even headed the ball into the back of the net in the second minute, but the Bhutanese was adjudged offside. A few minutes later, Punjab captain and topscorer Luka Majcen saw his effort comfortably saved by the home custodian Soram Poirei after a loose clearance by Likmabam Rakesh Meitei.
In the 19th minute, a Juan Mera free-kick from the right flashed past the face of the goal as Majcen and Ajay Chhetri, the two closest to the ball, failed to make any connection.
NEROCA, who largely operated down the wings, had their chances as well. Sweden Fernandes was unlucky not to open the scoring for the hosts as his powerful strike from 25 yards out came off the crossbar.
At the half-hour mark, Jourdaine Fletcher took a stinging free-kick from the right wing which was safely fisted away by Kiran Limbu. However, four minutes later, somewhat against the run of play, RoundGlass Punjab broke the deadlock. It was a move started and finished off by Chhetri.
The 23-year-old won possession in the final third and passed the ball to Majcen, who then fed it to Brandon Vanlalremdika on the right flank. The winger sent a looping cross for Chhetri at the far post, who timed his jump to perfection and headed home to make it 1-0.
In the first-half add-on time, Fletcher nearly equalised for NEROCA but was denied by another fine save from Limbu. Early in the second half, the NEROCA strike duo of Fletcher and Fernandes was in the thick of things again. The Jamaican's shot from the edge of the penalty area went whiskers away from the target before Fernandes' free kick from the edge of the penalty area was met by another Limbu save.
It was all NEROCA in the second half as they looked desperate as ever for the equaliser. In the 65th minute, Fernandes had another opportunity to score, but couldn't keep his header on target. RoundGlass Punjab's only chance of the half came in the 81st minute, as Poirei saved a long-range shot from Gyeltshen to keep NEROCA in the game.
Fletcher had two half chances for the Orange Brigade in the dying minutes of the contest. First, he skied a free-kick before seeing his audacious effort from 30 yards out collected by Limbu. (ANI)