Aizawl are within delicious distance of the I-League title, a single point required against Shillong Lajong next Sunday in what will be called the Northeast Derby. Every curve on their road this season is marked by stuff-of-dreams details but it is their football that has taken them this far. By keeping their defence tight for the best part of 90 minutes and then moving in for the sucker punch, a solitary goal with the opposition knocked sideways.
In the last home game on Saturday, the two men who became the pillars of Aizawl's entire I-League tactics, know that the game against Lajong will require of their team strength and forbearance. One of them knows the opposition and the venue inside out. Zohmingliana Ralte aka Zotea aka Zote, who scored the 83rd minute header against Mohun Bagan, says, "This is the Northeast Derby; there will be big crowds in Shillong. They are good people but tempers will be high."
Zotea, 27, spent five of his first pro footballing years in Shillong, starting with the Rangdajied United youth squad before joining Lajong from 2008 to 2012. "It was a good dressing room, the public was great." The hills people know each other well and Zotea says, "Of all the Northeast people, Mizo jaldi garam hote hai aur jaldi thanda hote hai (Mizos get angry very fast and cool down that quickly)." Lajong and their fans will be aware of that and so will the Aizawl "hardcore" who will be making the 12-hour road journey to Shillong. On Sunday, the "12 player" -- Zotea's description for Aizawl's vociferous crowd -- is what Lajong will have in numbers.
Lajong have a 7-6 win-loss record this season to Aizawl's 11-3 but are tied on goals scored (23). They field the league's highest goalscorer, Cameroonian Aser Dipanda Dicka (10). Dicka missed Lajong's last away game, a 1-1 draw against Mumbai FC due to injury, but should be ready.
On April 30, the Aizawl defence, which withstood sustained pressure from Mohun Bagan on Saturday, will be required to launch one last stand. Goalkeeper Albino Gomes, the man at its heart, told ESPN that the Bagan match had been their toughest as a unit. "It was the pressure match, and we had kept our focus, we just tell ourselves that we should not concede a goal. We should not allow them." Before he stepped onto the field in a rainy, misty Aizawl, Gomes, like some of the Mizos, had raised his arms aloft and looked to the leaden skies. From Nuven in Margao, Gomes does it often because as all goalkeepers everywhere say, "We need God's help also, no?" In his first I-League top-division season, Gomes and Aizawl have pulled off eight clean sheets, one behind Bengaluru and Bagan's nine.
An abundant new-age beard attempts to hide Gomes' 23 years. He has spent the last four years of a senior career on the bench at Salgaoncar and ISL club Mumbai City, and played a total a total of five matches in two seasons. Aizawl put him in goal from the first match of the season and Gomes has played the team's Horatius. In the title fight versus Bagan, Gomes found himself in mano a mano confrontation with the seasoned Darryl Duffy, who had skipped past two defenders, including Zotea. It was the fourth minute of the match. Gomes remembers. "I couldn't hear the crowd, nothing," he says. "I was just looking at the ball, where he will hit it. I was just waiting for him to hit shoot the ball and I saved it, by God's grace." Had Duffy scored, the gates -- everyone in Aizawl knew -- would have opened.
But Duffy missed and Aizawl threw themselves at the Bagan attack with vehement commitment. "We had to keep it tight because they have a great forward line," Zotea says. His duties were to keep an eye on Duffy and Mizoram's beloved Jeje Lalpekhlua on his flank, and against Lajong, he will have to mark one of Dicka, Fabio Pena and Yuta Kinowaki. And make use of his inches whenever he can. Zotea is 5ft 9in, tall for a Mizo, and when his opportunity came he used his height to best effect, giving Aizawl the win. It was the sixth goal Aizawl have scored after 80 minutes to snatch points this season.
There too the Aizawl defence, he points out, functioned as one seamless unit in the set piece, "[Mahmoud] Amnah gave a perfect cross, I was being marked by Raju Gaikwad, but then Danmawia [Laldanmawia Ralte] blocked the goalkeeper and I scored." It was, he laughs, "God's gift". There is a far bigger gift waiting and in just under a week, Aizawl will have to find their own way once again to open it.