Churchill Brothers' surge to their inaugural I-League title was put on hold as they were held to a 1-1 draw by relegation threatened Air India in a bitterly contested 21st round match at the Cooperage in Mumbai on Saturday.
Felix Chimaokwu gave the title aspirants the lead in the third minute of stoppage time in the first half, chesting down a long ball from Khenthang Paite and drifting away before unleashing a fierce shot that beat Arup Debnath all ends up.
Substitute Emmanuel Ovieghara helped the airmen draw level in the 88th minute by heading the ball into an open goal after Churchill Brothers goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya's made a complete hash of his charge while trying to punch away a free kick from man-of-the-match Chukwuma Udofia who successfully kept danger man Odafa Okolie on a tight leash.
The Goan leaders are still favourites for annexing the prestigious pennant with 43 points in the kitty. They can clinch it if they beat Mohammedan Sporting in their last match at home or if Mohun Bagan (37 points) lose any of their remaining three matches. If the Kolkata outfit draw one of them, then the Goans merely have to share points in their concluding game. Sporting Clube de Goa (40 points from 21 games) bowed out of the race today after being held to a 2-2 draw at home by Mahindra United.
The airmen are in eighth spot with 24 points and still not completely out of the drop zone. Incidentally, the first leg match between the two teams also ended in a 1-1 draw.
With high stakes involved for both teams, today's encounter degenerated into what Churchill coach Zoran Djordjevic described as "more fighting than football". Referee Pradeep Kumar (Tamil Nadu) was harried by irate Air India subs and officials after the match ended.
Churchill Brothers had ample chances to wrap up the issue in the second half after sharing the honours in the first session. Okolie, weighed down by the expectations, was hasty and sent a few of his attempts flying all over the place. He missed the simplest of chances, hitting the crossbar from handshaking distance in the 59th minute after Debnath had parried a grounder from Reisangmi Vashum.
Air India, who played with five defenders and four midfielders, mounted pressure in the second session by throwing in their Nigerian forward and Samson Singh into the ring and they got their equaliser thanks to Bhattacharya's blunder which Djordjevic found "not rational".