AT A TEA STALL near the Maidans in Kolkata, a strange scene unfolds when two friends; one a supporter of East Bengal and another a fan of Mohun Bagan; bump into each other.
"It was tough luck, you guys never seem to be able to handle Lajong in the second leg," says the Mohun Bagan fan.
"I know. We always seem to bungle it under pressure. But we still have a chance to win the league... hope we beat NEROCA at home," answers the East Bengal fan.
"I pray to God that you guys beat NEROCA," says the Mariner. "Please don't mess this one up."
The underlying banter comes from this surprising situation - Mohun Bagan fans all over the country want East Bengal to win their campaign ender against NEROCA; unless there's a draw, of course.
Usually, these bitter rivals always support whoever is playing against their rival club. But this time, the script has flipped for MB fans because of the I-League title race.
A look at the top division league's points table reveals a scenario few could have predicted even a few weeks ago; four clubs are jostling for the crown of the Champions of India going into the last round.
After playing 17 matches each, Minerva Punjab remain at the top with 32 points. Below them are NEROCA with 31. And the arch rivals Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are both on 30 points. All these clubs will be in action one last time on 8th March from 3 pm onwards; and each of them will have a chance to clinch the trophy.
For Minerva Punjab, the scenario is straightforward. To ensure they win the league, they must beat Churchill Brothers. The Punjabi club had a significant lead in the title race but failed to capitalize on it when the pressure seemed to finally get to them and they lost 3 of their last 4 matches; but on Thursday they cannot let any of that stop them from going for victory.
While a win ensures the trophy, a draw leaves them vulnerable; East Bengal and NEROCA will then have a chance to pip them provided they win their final game.
For others, the situation is much more complex. Let's take NEROCA; currently second in the table. They will face East Bengal away from home and that's not an easy fixture. But they have to go for a win. Victory takes them to 34 points and if Minerva Punjab don't win their last match it will mean a historic title triumph for NEROCA on their debut season in the top division. (Bengaluru FC won the title on their very first season but they did not win their way up from the 2nd Division; so it will be the first instance in Indian football where a club has won both divisions in back to back seasons).
If NEROCA end the game in a draw, they'll lose the title race even if Mohun Bagan and Minerva Punjab lose their matches. Because a draw will take NEROCA to 32 points and MPFC are already on 32; and looking at the H2H between the two, both their encounters were won by the Minervans. So nothing less than a win will do for NEROCA.
Let's come to Mohun Bagan, currently third on the table with 30 points. They will have to win their last game away to Gokulam Kerala FC to even be in contention for the title, and they'll have to hope for Minerva Punjab to lose since MPFC are ahead in the H2H (There's one exception to this scenario but more on that later). They also need their arch rivals East Bengal to hold NEROCA because a win for the Manipuri side means MB's possible 33 points will fall one short; it will be a repeat of their one point title race loss to Aizawl FC last season.
That's why Mohun Bagan fans are praying for an East Bengal win; while the East Bengal fans are praying for a Mohun Bagan loss.
Because for East Bengal, the scenario is yet more complex. If they beat NEROCA and get to 33 points, they must hope for Mohun Bagan not to win. Because if the Mariners also reach 33, then the double Derby wins this season will take the Green and Maroons ahead of their arch rivals in the points table, possibly to a title. That is, only if Minerva Punjab lose or draw against Churchill Brothers.
Which brings us to the juiciest scenario yet: a trifecta at 33.
Imagine if East Bengal beat NEROCA, Mohun Bagan beat Gokulam and Minerva Punjab are held to a draw by Churchill Brothers. Then all 3 teams will be at 33 points; making for the closest photo finish to the league in the history of Indian football; and a situation rare even in world football.
3 clubs tied at the summit with 33 points. For a league, it doesn't get better than this. But at this situation, how to tell who wins the league? In most European leagues they'll look at the overall goal difference to pick the winner. But in India, H2H takes precendence over GD. And if 3 clubs are tied in points, they look at a 3-way head to head to determine the winner. So they'll tally the points East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Minerva Punjab have earned against each other. And in this sandboxed mini league, Mohun Bagan come out on top.
MB beat EB twice in the Derbies and held MPFC to a draw away from home. So they have 7 points in this 3 way H2H. MPFC have 5, thanks to a win over MB and a draw apiece with EB and MB. EB come out with just 4 points; they beat MPFC once and then held them to a draw.
In this hypothetical situation, it will be the Derby victories that will determine who will win the league. And it will be a reinforcement of the 21 year old urban legend in Indian football - if you lose the Derby you lose the league.
All this is fine to look at. We don't know how things will go down once the ball (three balls, in fact) get rolling at 3 pm on a very unusual Thursday. Remember, all of these situations depend on one common factor: Churchill Brothers must not lose to Minerva Punjab. But CBFC have not won a game for more than a month; they have lost 4 of their last 5 games.
But avoiding relegation is a hell of a motivator. Churchill Brothers must win to stay in the top division league. So they will go all out. And not so long ago in their first leg encounter with Minerva Punjab, they actually won.
So it's fun to speculate and stoke the fire a little bit as we build up to that pivotal day. When the season began, few could have imagined that I-League, stripped off its star players and held at ungodly hours so that ISL can take the spotlight, would deliver its best edition yet. In terms of on-field action and intrigue, the top divison league remains unbeatable in Indian football.
Get the latest in the world of Sports, Teams, and Players! Free Delivery to your Inbox.