IT DIDN'T APPEAR ANYTHING like a big-ticket continental championship game. The atmosphere was dull, the rains and chilly winds of three days ago had given way to a still, humid air.
A colossal political event took place earlier today, merely 5 kilometers away from the Sarusujai Sports Complex. The new ministers of the Assam state assembly were being sworn in, with the prime minister in attendance. A massive traffic jam greeted anyone trying to approach the stadium from the national highway all afternoon. Local adminstrators briefly tried to cancel this match yesterday, on account of the prime minister's helipad being nearby.
The fans who had travelled for Saturday's Federation Cup final had mostly gone back. A dozen enthusiastic supporters had stayed on, more out of loyalty than hope. Some Aizawl FC fans came in later, taking the attendance at the Indira Gandhi Stadium to a whopping 282.
The Mohun Bagan team looked broken. Sony Norde had left to be with the Haiti national team. Katsumi Yusa was missing this game because of suspension. Pritam Kotal, who received three stitches on his leg after the Fed Cup final, could barely walk. Pronay Halder was out with an injury. Debjit Majumder was also given a rest on the last day of the season. With 9 Indians in the starting line-up, the Mariners were fielding a side that while not entirely second string, lacked most of the driving force that made them so lethal during the season. Instead of Norde, they started Kean Lewis on the left. Tirthankar was on the right in Katsumi's absence.
It wasn't like Tampine Rovers were fielding their strongest team either. But with the presence of Jordan Webb and Jermaine Pennant, their striking force was looking competent enough. Their defence, however, was a different story.
The Mighty Stags began on an offensive posture. Pennant hit the bar early in the game. Bagan keeper Arnab Das Sarma gave away a nervous corner. Then Cornell Glen got kicked in the abdomen and had to come off for a bit. He would go back in, but pull his hamstring towards the end of the half and get replaced by Subash Singh.
Jeje Lalpekhlua came close to scoring in the first half a few times. First with a long ranger that was way too high, then with a header off a Kean Lewis corner that got cleared from goal line by Ismadi Mukhtar. Then Pennant fed Nawaz for a close finish but the latter shot it over. Towards the end of the half, Pennant sent a great ball through for Jordan who sent it inches wide. The first half ended 0-0, a scoreline that clearly wasn't going to last.
Early in the second half, Kean Lewis made a breakaway run up the flank and Shakir Hamza had to foul him to stop the onslaught. He received a well-deserved booking for it. Then minutes later he had a tiff with Raju Gaikwad and both received yellow cards; and this being Hamza's second booking, referee Turki Alkhudhayar sent him off. Suddenly, Bagan had a numerical advantage.
And almost immediately they capitalized. Great run and shot on target by Subash Singh, but Rovers keeper Izwan Mahbud was spot-on with the save.
Then the break through came. For the 10-man Stags. Jordan Webb ran up the right flank, sent in a cross from the sidelines that spun towards the goal and caught Arnab completely out of position. Tampines Rovers were a goal up, but Jordan Webb hurt himself while taking the shot and could not continue.
But Bagan were not going to give up. Within minutes, Raju Gaikwad sent a through ball to Dhanachandra who headed it in but the keeper saved it. Then 71 minutes in, Bikramjit Singh let fly from some 35 yards out, and the long ranger flew in with a perfect curve, finding a charted path straight into the net. A beautiful goal for the man who scored here in the Fed Cup final as well, and the game was even.
Rest of the game saw some nervous defending by both sides who were anticipating extra time but did not want to slip up. But Bagan almost did when Pennant made a run through the middle and let fly. Arnab wasn't at hand but Kinshuk Debnath made the block, and saved a clear goal.
The first half of extra time was marred with a lot of time being wasted due to injuries. Noh Rahman and scorer Bikramjit Singh had to be taken away for treatment. But the best moment came when Subash Singh dodged and dribbled his way past multiple defenders then lobbed the ball to the middle of the ball. Raju Gaikwad tried a bicycle kick on it, but it was a miserable effort. A great move died a sorry death.
Some 107 minutes in, Hafiz Sujad ran into the Bagan penalty box and Arnab rushed out to block him. There was no contact in the end but Hafiz went down anyway. The referee called his bluff and booked him. Then came a tough moment for Bagan as two of their players, Raju Gaikwad and keeper Arnab Das Sarma, went down with injuries. Arnab got back on, Raju returned, and Bikramjit finally returned to the game... Bagan were finally playing with 11 men again.
And then came the finisher. A free kick for Tampines Rovers that Pennant sent in as a grounded pass. An almost casual left footer from Mohammad Yunos found its way into the net. The Rovers went 1-2 up, and that was that. The players had lost spirit, and a comeback did not look imminent.
They got a throw in that Raju Gaikwad sent in as a long throw but the final header went wide. That was about all they could muster in response. The match ended with Mohun Bagan losing 1-2, knocked out of their AFC Cup campaign by the same team they beat in their very first continental game of the season, the AFC Champions League qualifier in January.
It was a strained end to the season for the Mariners who had lifted their historic 14th Federation Cup title on this very ground 3 days ago. But fatigue from that night and the lack of full strength stunned their sharpness, and despite putting up a good fight, in the end they had to pay the price.