THE WAY EAST BENGAL played against DSK Shivajians yesterday made it hard to believe they were still technically in the I-League title race. But they indeed were, and it's only with their loss that the top division gold rush now only has two contenders standing.
Mohun Bagan, the oldest and one of the most successful clubs in the country, are facing heat from young guns Aizawl FC. Both are on 33 points from 16 matches, with the last two rounds making for a neck-to-neck finish to the title battle.
The focus of it all is obviously the match between the two contenders - Aizawl FC and Mohun Bagan - that will take place at Rajiv Gandhi Stadium on Saturday. It's the first time a club from North-East India has come this close to the title, and this match in front of their home fans makes for a perfect platform for the Peoples' Club to seize this historic opportunity.
The mathematics of the title race is rather simple now. Both Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC are on the same number of points, but Mohun Bagan are ahead due to superior head to head, since they beat Aizawl FC 3-2 at home in the first leg.
Now, the order of tie-breakers used on two clubs with equal points is: first, the head to head. Then, the goal difference in the head-to-head matches. If both these numbers are the same then the overall goal difference is taken into account. Away goal rule is not a thing here.
Mohun Bagan are ahead of Aizawl FC in every way in these numbers. They won the first leg, and have a far superior goal difference (+15 compared to +9). So if Aizawl FC beat Mohun Bagan by 1 goal on Saturday, it opens up a possibility that if they lose to Shillong Lajong away from home in the last round and Mohun Bagan beat Chennai City at home, Mohun Bagan can still be champions. So, to seal it at home, Aizawl FC must beat Mohun Bagan by 2 goals.
For Mohun Bagan, an outright win will be enough to seal a title triumph. It will make the last round irrelevant.
But if these two teams play out a draw, then everything will depend on the last round. But still, thanks to superior head-to-head, Mohun Bagan will have an advantage. If they beat Chennai City at home then the title will be theirs regardless of whether Aizawl FC beat Shillong Lajong or not. And Aizawl FC will have to depend on Mohun Bagan dropping points at home; and that has happened only once in the last 11 home games in all competitions when Mumbai FC held the Mariners to a 2-2 draw.
Not to mention Shillong Lajong are a tough opponent at home; Aizawl FC will have a tougher challenge going into the last game than Mohun Bagan.
So Aizawl FC will have to try their hardest to ensure a win. Even a one goal win is good enough; a draw against Lajong would secure the title for them.
And the only time Mohun Bagan have visited Aizawl FC it ended in a 2-1 victory for the home team.
Aizawl FC have been a fierce side this season, especially at home. The fact that they, with their low budget team and limited resources, managed to lead the league table for a significant amount of time and continue to be a title contender going into the last couple of rounds is an achievement in itself. But no fairytale is complete unless the heroes are crowned at the end; so they will try their hardest to make it happen in front of their own fans with a memorable win and not leave anything to chance.
For Mohun Bagan, though, this is familiar territory. They have won close title races before. In 2001-02 they had a photo finish with Churchill Brothers. And in 2014-15 they snatched the title from Bengaluru FC at Kanteerava in one of the most exciting climaxes in Indian top division history. Most of the players who played that match will take to the pitch on Saturday as well, and they will try to repeat history and secure a 5th national league title for the club then and there.
Whether or not the title race gets resolved in Aizawl this Saturday or not, but one thing is for sure: we are about to see a rare clash of two clubs with strong histories, identities and enduring footballing values. And with the merger of I-League and ISL likely to shut the door on small clubs with spirits big enough to take on the giants, Indian football fans may not get to see anything like this for years to come.
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