The overwhelming favourites to win this year’s Federation Cup were undoubtedly Churchill Brothers, especially after their dominating display in recent knockout tournaments, like the IFA Shield and Durand Cup. But the Goan giants learnt the meaning of the overexploited phrase “stranger things have happened in sports” the hard way, as they went down against determined debutants Shillong Lajong side in the first Semi Final of the tournament.
Before the tournament kicked-off, not many pundits would have put their money on debutants Lajong or a struggling East Bengal side to make it to the final of the tournament. The results once again underlined the fact that all the top flight domestic clubs are very close to each other, as far as the strength of the squads go. A tactical master-stroke, a determined mindset and individual brilliance on that given day can dictate the course of the game.
A struggling East Bengal team made their way into the semi-final stage from Group A, winning two closely fought league games and drawing their third match. Scoring a solitary goal in each of their two wins was enough to take them to the next round, as their defense produced clean sheets in all three league matches.
Group B, widely tagged as the ‘Group of Death’, met all expectations as football fans witnessed a do-or-die clash between Kolkata giant Mohun Bagan and former champion Mahindra United. Mohun Bagan deservedly booked a berth in the semis, defeating Mahindra by a two goal margin.
Churchill Brothers comfortably made their way into the semi-finals from Group C, winning all three group league matches without conceding a single goal.
Group D witnessed a dramatic turnaround, as another hot favorite, Dempo SC, was knocked out from the group stages. Even though both Pune FC and debutants Shillong Lajong were tied on points as well as goal difference, Lajong booked the solitary semi final berth, as they scored more number of goals.
Shillong Lajong, backed by a a twenty-thousand strong home crowd, exploited the familiar home conditions very well when they took on the hot favourites Churchill Brothers in the first semis. A terrific solo goal by their talented young striker Tuboi was enough to see off the challenge from the current I-League holders. They created history being the first debutant club to qualify for a Federation Cup final.
The second semi-final was a face-off between arch-rivals and Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. East Bengal once again maintained their superb defensive performance, and a couple of moments of individual brilliance from veteran striker Yusif Yakubu and Baichung Bhutia earned them their elusive final appearance.
Football pundits termed the final match as the ‘clash between the best defense and best attack of the tournament’ and quite rightly so. East Bengal did not concede even a single goal in their journey to the final, while Lajong scored the most number of goals to come this far. In the final, once again the East Bengal defense was unbeatable, though hardly tested; the men in Red and Gold dominated the match from the word go. However, they failed to open their account in the regulation and extra time, thanks to a brilliant goal-keeping performance by Lajong custodian Gumpe Rime, who produced at least four outstanding saves in the stipulated time. In the penalty shootout, East Bengal goal-keeper Abhra Mondal guessed all the three Lajong spot-kicks to perfection, thus clinching the silverware for the Red and Gold brigade. Abhra was deservedly rewarded with the ‘Man of the Match’ award as well.
By winning their sixth Federation Cup title, East Bengal also qualified for the next AFC Cup. The Red and Gold brigade from Kolkata also became the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC cup on four occasions.