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Gokulam Kerala FC 3 (Komron Tursunov 44′, Álex Sánchez 90+1′, 90+3′)

AIFF Media Team

SHILLONG: Gokulam Kerala FC kept their top four hopes in the I-League alive with a 3-0 win over already-relegated NEROCA FC at the SSA Stadium in Shillong on Sunday, April 7, 2024.

The Malabarians ended their two-game losing run and moved to 39 points. Real Kashmir and Inter Kashi are at third and fourth, respectively, both with 40 points, with the final matchday to come next week.

Komron Tursunov struck the opening goal at the stroke of half-time but skipper Álex Sánchez grabbed the headlines for his injury-time brace – his 17th and 18th strikes of the season – which ended his five-game scoreless run, and put him two goals clear of Richardson Kwaku Denzell of Rajasthan United in the Golden Boot race.

The action was frenetic from the get-go with chances at both ends. In the seventh minute, Gokulam Kerala’s Noufal PN tested the gloves of Khoirom Jackson Singh with a half-volley from outside the box. In the very next minute, NEROCA forward Baoringdao Bodo dragged his left-footed effort inches wide of the far post.

Jackson was called into action again soon as he made himself big to deny Komron Tursunov from close range. However, it was Darius Snorton Perwood who went closest to opening the scoring for the hosts in the 23rd minute when his powerful strike from 25 yards out rattled the crossbar.

Then at NEROCA’s defensive end, their other African foreigner David Simbo almost made a costly mistake as his mistimed clearance off a Sreekuttan cross nearly resulted in an own goal. Nevertheless, the Malabarians took the lead in the 44th minute after a brilliant team move of their own.

Nikola Stojanović won the ball in the attacking half before feeding Álex Sánchez at the top of the box. The Spaniard released it forward for Tursunov, who cleanly dinked it over Jackson for his fifth goal of the season, and the first in seven matches.

The Orange Brigade started the second half in aggressively and fashioned multiple opportunities despite Gokulam holding more possession. In the 57th minute, Aniket Panchal’s long-range attempt missed the top corner by a whisker. Later, Mohammed Sarif Khan’s header was saved by Devansh Dabas before Nonganba Singh Akoijam tucked in the rebound but he did so from an offside position so it didn’t count.

Then it was Waikhom Rohit Meetei’s turn to head wide from a Lourembam David Singh cross. But it was in the 79th minute that NEROCA came the closest to an equaliser as Sarif’s brave diving header hit the near post.

Gokulam also had a handful of chances to extend their lead. Noufal cut inside from the left before blasting his shot high and wide. Later, substitute Pitu Viera saw his volley flash wide before his attempt from 12 yards out was blocked by a NEROCA shirt in the very next minute. In the 88th minute, Jackson made a great save to keep out Noufal’s attempt from point-blank range. The Gokulam winger then pounced on the rebound but his second shot was cleared away by Gurmeet Singh.

And just as the clock hit 90 minutes, it was time for Álex Sánchez to unleash himself. The Gokulam skipper finally ended his goal drought as he got on the end of a fine through ball from Viera and hoofed into the roof of the net. Two minutes later, he went clean through on goal again and lodged the ball into the far corner with a fine finish to seal the 3-0 win.

NEROCA’s Panchal was denied a late consolation goal by a great outstretched save from Dabas, who kept a clean sheet on his return between the sticks for Gokulam after four months. It was also the Malabarians’ first clean sheet in 10 matches.