IN A GAME THAT WAS everything a classic Kolkata Derby is made of - drama, controversy, cards, penalties, title race and missed chances - East Bengal held Mohun Bagan to a 2-2 draw at the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri today.
But the draw wasn't anything short of a historic victory for the Red and Golds, as this result ensured that they clinched their 39th Calcutta Football League title, a record breaking 8th triumph on the run.
Khalid Jamil's first test as the East Bengal coach was to make sure the club reaches the highly coveted milestone and he did so in style... somewhat. Facing a skilled team in Mohun Bagan in the title showdown, Jamil played a starting eleven with emphasis on youth. Anrab Mondal, a regular at the Indian national team, was benched in favour of young blood who could run faster.
Mohun Bagan, too, fielded a squad that has emerged as a set unit over the course of the league. Head coach Shankarlal Bhattacharya evidently had a plan that focused on attack; the very first action of the match was Mohun Bagan recovering the ball and running up the left flank at breakneck speed.
Things began to happen quite fast and did not slow down till the end of the game. Mohun Bagan took the lead in the very third minute when a cross from Azharuddin Mallick took a deflection from Michelle and went straight in. With the early lead going to the Mariners, East Bengal took a few minutes to get themselves back in the game.
Right after the 10 minute mark, East Bengal put pressure on Mohun Bagan with back to back set pieces but Mohun Bagan survived the period with stout defence. They even turned the tide first with a counter led by Nikhil Kadam who set up an easy one for Azharuddin but the striker failed to find the net. Back to back corners saw East Bengal cross the half hour mark with their backs to the wall.
Willis Plaza, with a patent burst of speed, fooled the Bagan defenders and took a crack at goal but Shilton Paul made a good save. But soon Shilton D'Silva committed a rash foul on Rafique that got him booked and gave East Bengal a free kick from a scoring range... Gabriel Fernandes found an unmarked Laldanmawia with the set piece and this time Shilton Paul was off position. The ball found the net. It was 1-1 just before half time.
But when the two teams came back out for the second period, Mohun Bagan started with emphatic aggression. The club was having a good time on the pitch with superior ball control and short, effective through balls that was distressing the East Bengal defence. Soon, the pressure paid off. Bayi Kamo was brought down in the box by Mitchell. Kromah converted from the spot to give Mohun Bagan the lead again. 2-1.
Now East Bengal had to chase the game again. Khalid Jamil replaced Gabriel with Cavin Lobo at the hour mark. In retaliation, Shankarlal tried to speed up the wing by getting Chesterpaul Lyngdoh in for Nikhil Kadam.
But all of that equation was disrupted when Raynier Fernandes committed an unnecessary foul at the edge of the box. The referee pointed towards the penalty spot despite furious protest from the Mohun Bagan players. Al Amnah stepped up and calmly put the shot past Shilton Paul. East Bengal were now level 2-2, with 25 minutes of regulation time left.
Now, although a draw would leave both clubs with the same points (23 from 9 matches), East Bengal's superior goal difference meant that it was enough for them to lift the CFL title. Mohun Bagan, therefore, had to get a goal to win the league. They got their best chance only minutes later when Kamo got the ball in front of an open net but sent it wide. Not long afterwards Gurwinder Singh made a big mistake to almost allow Mohun Bagan a free run at the goal but Red and Gold keeper Luis Barreto made a great save.
As the match entered its final minutes, Kingshuk Debnath was shown a second yellow after a clash with Surabuddin. A scuffle ensued on the pitch as Mohun Bagan were down to 10 men. Even Surabuddin got a yellow for that, and just minutes later, he committed a cynical foul and got his own second yellow. Both teams were now down to 10 men.
With the clock showing 88 minutes, Bayi Kamo got yet another golden opportunity inside the EB box but he sent it over. The last few minutes of the game were riddled with injuries and stoppages. East Bengal players saw the clock out to reach the long desired goal... when the final whistle was blown, they set another historic milestone by winning the CFL, one of the oldest leagues in Asia, for the 8th straight time.
The East Bengal players celebrated as Mohun Bagan players collapsed on the pitch. The fans burned torches in the stands as they celebrated this historic occasion. Khalid Jamil was hugged by the players and given a position of honour as the team did a victory lap; the coach who made a miracle happen last season by winning the top flight I-League with minnows Aizawl FC has now shown his competence at his new club as well. Mohun Bagan, despite being the arguably better side on the pitch, were leaving the pitch without the crown due to mistakes and failure to counter Jamil's strategy of utilising quick-burst spells of attack.
The match, and the league title race, went down to the last second. And at the end of it all, the fans who travelled to Siliguri despite a plethora of hardships got to see one of the closes photo-finish to the title race in the long history of the Calcutta Football League.
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