The match was 76 minutes old. Juan Mera took off his jersey and ran towards the bench as those sitting there rushed out for a celebration. It had to be a grand one even though the game was not over, because Mera had just sealed RoundGlass Punjab’s place in the pages of Punjab football’s glorious history. With a piece of quintessential Spanish skill, he had just scored RoundGlass’ third goal against Rajasthan United FC, ensuring the 2022-23 Hero I-League title with a match to spare.
It was yet another flawless performance by Staikos Vergetis’s team here at Ambedkar Stadium. The final score was 4-0 as defender Hmingthanmawia rubbed salt in the wounds of Rajasthan United with a precise header off Juan Nellar’s free-kick in stoppage time.
The victory gave RoundGlass an unassailable eight-point lead atop the points table, crushing Hyderabad’s Sreenidi Deccan’s hopes. The Hero I-League trophy will return to Punjab for the first time since 2017-18, when Minerva Punjab won it. This success will taste trebly sweet as it earned RoundGlass a berth in the Indian Super League – the top tier of club football; as well as direct entry to the season-ending Super Cup.
As has been the case with RoundGlass this season, they began the Saturday’s match in a laidback fashion, then jumped on their opponents like a beast that was pretending to be asleep, waiting for its prey. Hero of the Match Chencho Gyeltshen capitalised on a defensive error in the 16th minute to start the scoring spree. Khaiminthang Lhungdim crossed from the right wing and the defender standing ahead of Gyeltshen out-jumped him but missed the header. Gyeltshen did not. It took a deflection off Yash Tripathi and went in.
Rajasthan United’s Uzbek midfielder Otabek Zokirov, who scored for them in the last two matches, could have made it 1-1 in the 25th minute with a booming left-footer from just outside the box. But Kiran Limbu flew to his left and kept it out.
His counterpart, Vishal Joon did the same a couple of minutes later to deny Luka Majcen, who still has a match in hand to overtake Sreenidi’s David Castaneda as the top-scorer of this Hero I-League. However, the Slovenian was not to be denied for long. He got his share of the pie in the 40th minute as Ajay Chhetri crossed from the left. Four Rajasthan United men stood in a line, none of them trying to clear it. Luka headed home coming in from behind, as Amritpal Singh remained a spectator.
Even though Rajasthan had enough ball possession, they did not have anybody forceful up front like Gyeltshen, Luka or Mera to pressurise the RoundGlass defence. It seemed a matter of time before the Punjab team increased the margin. That finally happened when the three forwards combined in the 76th minute.
Luka floated the ball in from the right of the midfield to the left of the Rajasthan United box. Gyeltshen grabbed it and passed it to Mera. The Spaniard, with his first touch, dragged the ball with the left foot and turned to shake off his marker. Then sent a right-footed grounder to the corner of the net.
It was a game, set, and match for RoundGlass. Rest was a formality.