KOLKATA: Manipur debutants Neroca FC held city football giants East Bengal to a 1-1 draw in a crunch last-round I-League match here as league leaders Minerva Punjab FC beat relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers to win the I-League title on Thursday in Panchkula.
Felix Chidi (42nd) gave Neroca the lead with Dudu Omagbemi (73rd) equalising but to no avail in the end at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.
East Bengal needed to beat second-placed Neroca and then hope table-toppers Minerva Punjab FC (32 points) don't triumph against relegation-threatened Churchill Brothers.
Arch-rivals Mohun Bagan also had to not win at Gokulam Kerala FC as they have a better head-to-head record against East Bengal.
But at Panchkula, Minerva saw off Churchill 1-0 to bag their maiden title defying all odds while Mohun Bagan were held to a 1-1 draw by Gokulam Kerala FC at Kozhikode.
East Bengal thus finished fourth in the points table with 31 points, same as Mohun Bagan who ended third owing to better head-to-head record.
Neroca (32 points) finished second while Churchill were relegated.
Neroca, on their part, needed Minerva to lose in order to harbour hopes of winning the league for the first time.
The visitors made three changes to their starting XI from the last game. Goalkeeper Lalit Thapa, Nicholas Ward, and Govin Singh came in place of Bishorjit Singh, injured Gouramangi Singh and suspended Aryn Williams.
East Bengal ringed in as many as six changes from their 2-2 draw against Shillong Lajong. Samad Ali Mullick, Arnab Mondal, Eduardo Ferreira, Mohammed Rafique, Yami Longvah, and Joby Justin replaced Mehtab Singh, Salam Ranjan Singh, Gurwinder Singh, Cavin Lobo, Brandon Vanlalremdika, and Ansumana Kromah.
The first chance of the match fell to Neroca when Subash Singh dribbled inside the box but his meek effort was easily collected by East Bengal keeper Ubaid C.K.
At the other end, Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amnah found the side-netting after Yusa Katsumi set him up from a short free-kick.
In the 15th minute, at Panchkula, Minerva took the lead riding Willaim Opoku's goal denting East Bengal's charge.
The Red and Golds then got three gilt-edged chances but Dudu spurned couple of them while Justin put too much on the shot with a wide-open net in front of him.
Al Amna also missed a good opportunity to take the lead as the Khalid Jamil-coached side saw matters going from bad to worse for them when Neroca took the lead.
Chidi outfoxed Arnab Mondal inside the area after being fed by Australian Nick Ward. At halftime, the hosts trailed 0-1.
Just after the break, East Bengal appealed for a penalty when Dudu's shot struck the hand of a Neroca defender, but referee Rowan Arumughan waved play on.
Dudu then came close to equalising but smashed wide of the far post. The 32-year old finally atoned for his flurry of misses by heading in Lalram CHullova's cross after the hosts exchanged four passes.
Both teams pushed for a winner towards the dying minutes of the match but with Minerva not winning their game, the motivation also seemed lacking.