EAST BENGAL CLINCHED a significant victory against Mohammedan Sporting by a hard-fought 3-2 margin today, pitting them as the favourites in the Calcutta Football League title race.
The highly anticipated encountered ran into logistical issues early when IFA and the local police authorities decided to block the fans from being present at the stadium, citing "security reasons." Only card-holding members of both clubs were allowed to attend.
Both clubs needed a win in this match to stay alive in the title race which had multiple horses still vying for the pole position in the last week of the league.
East Bengal started on the offensive, creating chances from the second minute itself. They didn't have to wait long to open the scoring. Pintu Mahata, who has gained a reputation as a big game scorer, rose to the occasion and found the net just 12 minutes into the match, finishing from a cross by Kamalpreet Singh.
The same Kamalpreet, however, committed an error that led to Mohammedan Sporting's equalizer. He handled the ball just outside the box, prompting the referee to grant a free kick to MDSC. The free kick was on target and Borja Gomez tried to head it out for a corner... but by error ended up playing it right into his own net. The own goal made the scoreline 1-1 just 24 minutes into the game.
A minute later, Borja was forced to leave the pitch due to an injury.
However, East Bengal did well to recover from this bad start by doubling down on building coherent attacks with well-coordinated short passes that put the Mohammedan Sporting defence under constant pressure. And before long, the Black Panthers started making mistakes under that pressure.
Not long before half-time, Saiful Rahman ended up handling the ball inside the penalty box. The referee showed him a direct red card, and awarded a penalty to the Red and Golds. James Colado took the spot kick and easily converted. Going into the break, East Bengal had their lead restored. It was 2-1.
The Red and Golds' dominance continued in the second half and before the hour mark they extended their lead with Marcos Espada, who had come on as a substitute just a few minutes prior, scored off a pass from Dika.
Now with their back against the wall, Mohammedan Sporting tried hard to get back in the match, playing an increasingly physical game to impose their will and create chances. Their relentless efforts finally bore fruit 83 minutes in when Arthar Kouassi got hold of a pass from Satyam and fired it into the net. 3-2.
The last few minutes of the match saw desperate efforts on both sides of the pitch, with East Bengal trying hard to get an insurance goal and Mohammedan Sporting going beyond themselves to get even. However, the Black Panthers fell short of their dream of having another shot at the CFL title for the first time since 1981; the high voltage goalfest ended in the Red and Golds' favour.
You can watch the whole match right here, courtesy Sadhna News.
With this victory, East Bengal have risen to the top of the league table, with 20 points from 10 matches (Goal Difference +7). Mohammedan Sporting slipped down to second place, ending their campaign with 19 points from 11 matches (GD +3). Peerless SC are in the third position, on 17 points from just 9 matches (GD +10), continuing to be the biggest threat to East Bengal's title bid. Mohun Bagan are at the fourth place, with 17 points from 10 matches (GD +7).
Even this late into the league, three clubs are still technically in the race to become champions. Under IFA rules, Goal Difference is used as the primary tiebreaker ahead of head-to-head in case of two clubs finishing with the same number of points; and it may end up playing a major role in determining who wins the league.
For East Bengal to win the league the math is simple: they must beat Calcutta Customs in their last match of the campaign and hope for Peerless SC to drop points to be crowed champions... unless they win by a margin large enough that gives them a lead in th goal difference over Peerless.
For Peerless - who play Rainbow FC tomorrow in another match with a lot of significance in the title and relegation race - they must win both their remaining matches (against Ranbow and George Telegraph) and maintain a lead in goal difference over East Bengal to get their hands on the trophy for the first time ever in the history of the club.
Mohun Bagan are still mathematically in the race but their chances of comin out on top are very low. They have to win their last league match with a high margin, and hope for East Bengal to lose to Customs as well as for Peerless to lose or draw both their remaining matches; circumstances that are very unlikely to come to pass.
At this point, the title race is practically a duel between East Bengal and Peerless SC. Keeping this in mind, IFA had orignally scheduled the Peerless vs Rainbow match simulataneously with the East Bengal vs Mohammedan game. But later the fixture was moved back to tomorrow (Friday, 27th September). If Peerless win this match they will re-claim the top of the league table from East Bengal.
This creates the possibility of a double header in the last round. The IFA is yet to release the fixtures for the concluding round but in the event East Bengal and Peerless remain locked in the title race, demands for a simultaneous match will become strong; creating another occasion where football fans will have to keep an eye on multiple ongoing matches to find out which club becomes champions; as has been the case with I-League title races of 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.
While I-League is sometimes hailed as the most competitive domestic league in Asia, it seems CFL, the longest running local league in the country and one of Asia's oldest leagues, may give it a run for its money this time.