THE DURAND CUP ORGANIZERS have gotten a few things wrong in their maiden venture in Kolkata, but one thing they have been spot on with is the format.
A couple of weeks into the tournament, there have been complaints about the 3 pm kick-offs (despite the stadiums being equipped with floodlights) and inadequate from-the-counter ticket sales on matchdays that caused thousands of fans who turned up to see matches not being able to enter the stadium on a few occasions; despite some seats being empty inside.
But those rookie missteps from a tournament that hasn't been in the city before aside, the group stage of Durand Cup has generated extra attention and intrigue from fans because of the heightened stakes each match has.
Instead of going the traditional route followed by similar tournaments - where top two teams from each group qualify for the next round - Durand Cup have chosen to allow only the group toppers progress in the competitions.
Of the four groups with 4 teams each, the best one qualifies for the semi-finals. It's a simple format, but one that ensures that teams can't coast; even one loss can throw a club off track and there are very few "dead games."
And the effects are visible already. When East Bengal played Army Red and the game was goalless for 83 minutes, the tension in the jam packed East Bengal Ground was palpable. When ATK scored against Mohun Bagan in the late stages of the match and it appeared that they had a chance of snatching a draw from the jaws of the Mariners, the nerves hit the roof in the Mohun Bagan Ground. And when Real Kashmir FC scored against Chennai City FC in the 90th minute, the celebration was one of maddening joy, not only because they had just beaten the reigning Champions of India but also because that victory meant a huge leap towards semi-final qualification.
This kind of excitement is rarely seen in the group stages of the tournament. And apart from the enthusiastic support from the football fans of West Bengal, it's played a big part turning this edition of Durand Cup into one of the most popular installments of the world's 3rd oldest tournament in the last decade or two.
So what's the story so far? Have the coveted spots in semi-finals already been taken or is there room for some shuffle yet? The situation differs from group to group.
Let's take a look at Group A. It has East Bengal, Bengaluru FC, Jamshedpur FC as well as Army Red. The Army team has already been eliminated from the competition, having pickecd up just 2 points from its 3 matches, with draws against Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC, who have sent their junior teams to this tournament. East Bengal are sitting on top with 6 points from 2 matches, seemingly miles ahead of BFC (1 point from 1 match) and JFC (1 point from 2 matches).
Here, Jamshedpur FC don't have a chance any more. But if Bengaluru FC win their two remaining matches they will reach 7 points from 3 matches, leaving EB behind.
So their task is tough yet simple. On 14th August at the Salt Lake Stadium, the Blue Colts must beat the Red and Golds. and then beat JFC on 17th August. If East Bengal even manage to get a draw out of the match, they're through. The last match will become inconsequential.
In Group B, we have 3 local teams. Mohun Bagan from I-League, Mohammedan Sporting from 2nd Division League and ATK from ISL. There's also the Indian Navy team in the pool.
So far, both ATK and Indian Navy have been knocked out of contention for semi-finals. Navy held ATK to a draw and then Mohun Bagan beat them, which means ATK are left with just 1 point from 2 matches, same as Indian Navy who were beaten by Mohammedan Sporting in a massive 6-2 goalfest on Saturday.
So now Mohun Bagan are on 6 points from 2 matches, while Mohammedan Sporting are on 3 from 2 games. If Mohammedan beat ATK on 16th August and Mohun Bagan lose to Indian Navy on 17th August, then both clubs will finish the group stage with 6 points. What happens then?
The Durand Cup employs the following criterias in the scenario where two or more clubs finish with the same number of points,
"1. Greater number of points obtained in the matches between the Teams concerned
2. Goal difference resulting from the matches between the Teams concerned
3. Greater number of goals scored in the matches between the Teams concerned
4. Goal difference in all the matches
5. Greater number of goals scored in all the matches
6. Drawing of lots"
So it's head to head above all else. And unfortunately for Mohammedan Sporting, they lost 2-0 to Mohun Bagan on the opening night of the competition. So it's over; Mohun Bagan are through to the semi-finals.
Unless the Mariners happen to pull out from their last match and have their points docked... but that's not a very likely scenario. Right?
Moving on to Group C, which is only 3 matches into the round. Here, Real Kashmir FC are reigning supreme. They beat Chennai City by a late scorcher and ran a 4-0 rampage over Army Green. They are on 6 points from 2 matches, followed by FC Goa who are on 3 points from 1 match thanks to their 1-0 win over Army Green.
So at this point Army Green are eliminated and things are looking tough for Chennai City. But things can still change for the champs if they beat FC Goa on 14th.
Anything less than a win will mean an elimination for Chennai City. For FC Goa, if they can get at least one point from this match, they still have a direct path to the semi-finals; if they beat Real Kashmir FC on 17th August, that is. This group, with the Lions, the Gaurs and the Snow Leopards thrown into the same cage, promises to be a thoroughly entertaining affair till the very end.
Group D, meanwhile, has just seen two matches take place so far. But things are already looking pretty interesting.
To begin with, it's the only group where the armed forces' team still has a good shot at making the semis. Indian Air Force beat TRAU FC from Imphal, who won the 2nd Division League last season and will make their I-League debut this season, by a solitary goal. In the other match, Gokulam Kerala FC beat Chennaiyin FC 4-0 to kick off their Durand campaign.
This means the group is wide open. If Chennaiyin and TRAU win their remaining matches they still stand a chance to top the group. GKFC and Indian Air Force can't take their good start for granted.
It's the only group where all 4 clubs still have a chance to make it to the semi-finals. It's very likely that Howrah Stadium will see a race to the top that goes down to the wire, with every draw and loss having massive consequences for the club.
In the recent years, the Durand Cup lost its shine because I-League and ISL teams didn't have much of a chance to focus on other competitions due to a crammed, haphazard seasonal calendar. This season, the competition saw a revival thanks to its new venue and full cooperation from AIFF and the clubs. And it immediately captured the imagination of the fans, proving that the history-rich tournament can still be an effective vehicle to promote the sport in this country.
As the competition progresses, so will the excitement around it; and in many ways the format will play a big role in that process.