LOOKING AT THE floodlit Salt Lake Stadium you wouldn't think it was some big-deal occasion. There was no procession of trucks travelling from long distances, like four days ago. No extraordinary security arrangements to channel traffic and crowd into designated lanes. Zero promotion and a number of factors meant that most people didn't even know what was happening tonight. The crowd in the arena was around the 10-12 thousand margin, making the stadium look nearly empty.
But among those that did turn up did not lack in passion. And the way the Mohun Bagan players went into this game reflected the enormity of the occasion.
Coach Sanjay Sen had said in the pre-match presser that since the Rovers are an unknown side his team would start slow, test the waters out, and then go for it. But when the match began, they fired away from the get go. Sen had opted for a double pivot in the midfield with Pronay Halder and Souvik Chakraborty, and Balwant Singh was rested in favour of Jeje Lalpekhlua up front along with Cornell Glen. The results came very soon.
It was Sony Norde who sprinted ahead along the left flank, Dhanachandra following in his wake. The Haitian sent the ball backwards to Dhanachandra who sent in a supple cross into the box. Jeje Lalpekhlua came running break-neck towards it and put on a flick that had Singapore national team keeper Izwan Mahbud beaten. The ball hit the post then rebounded back into the net. Cue explosion of joy. Fireworks went up, despite warnings on the mic not to use crackers in the stands. It was the third ever goal in the AFC Champions League qualifiers by an Indian (Dhanachandra Singh had scored one for Churchill Brothers in 2010 and Eugeneson Lyngdoh netted one for Bengaluru FC last season). Mohun Bagan were 1-0 ahead.
Bagan kept on attacking. A ball by Katsumi to Pritam saw the Indian international send in a cross that no one could reach. Then Sony Norde had a long-distance crack at it that the Rovers keeper stopped.
Cornell Glen up front was having a nightmare of an evening. He got a brilliant cross from Katsumi that he basically had to tap into a near-empty net from close range but he shot it too high. He banged his fists on the ground in frustration. But things were just getting started for him.
He got fouled inside the penalty box. Mohun Bagan had a spot-kick and Glen himself stepped up to take it. He shot the ball directly at the keeper's hands. Penalty missed, on a game like this.
But Glen scored. Minutes later it was Sony Norde who dribbled past three or four Stags defenders and sent the ball into the goalmouth where Glen had the job of tapping into goal from 3 feet out. He slipped, fumbled and almost made a mess of that too. But the ball took a knock off his feet and went in all right. 2-0 to Bagan.
But the Rovers pulled one back shortly afterwards. Kingshuk Debnath fouled Hafiz Sujad just outside the penalty box. The felled midfielder took the free kick that Yasir Hanapi, left unmarked inside the box, duly tapped in. It was 2-1, just before half-time.
Early in the second half, people in the stadium took a collective double take when a free-kick saw Fazrul Nawaz find the net. But he was caught offside and the linesman didn't miss out on it. The goal was disallowed and Bagan kept their lead. Relief prevailed.
A handball saw Katsumi Yusa send a gem of a free-kick into the Rovers box and Cornell Glen jumped really high to send a super header towards the goal. But keeper Izwan got in the way of it. Glen hurt himself when he landed awkwardly from that jump. The score was still 2-1.
At one point Tampine Rovers seemed to be regaining control of the game through fast passing and a more mobile midfield. But despite trying hard they failed to find the net. Debjit Majumder pulled off a couple of good saves and there were some costly misses on their part. But as the match went past 80 minutes the contest was getting as nervy as it could be.
But Katsumi Yusa killed all chances for Rovers when 83 minutes in Sony Norde came up with a brilliant corner kick that Prabir Das sent in for Katsumi to tap into the net. 3-1, and history was sealed.
At long last the final whistle marked the historic moment. Mohun Bagan had won an AFC Champions League qualifier, the first Indian club to do so in the current format (Mohun Bagan and Churchill Brothers had reached the 3rd round of qualifiers in 2002, the first edition of ACL, but those were played in the old home-away format). It's not exactly the pinnacle of continental football; they face China's Sandong Luneng Taishan on the 2nd of February. If they win that, they'll face Adelaide United in the final play-off match, to gain entrance into the ACL group stage. Both these matches are away from home. So the tough part of Bagan's uphill Asian journey has just begun.
So while it's not the top of the hill, it's definitely a small step towards it. And the fans who had showed up celebrated the occasion heartily. It was a rare piece of continental football that the spectators were treated to tonight; one that turned into a memorable milestone. How far Bagan can acutally take this from here, remains to be seen.