Scene One – Mohun Bagan was facing off against Mumbai FC in a crucial I-League encounter. The score was tied at 2-2 as the Mariners had yet again given up a lead thanks to a porous defence. Mumbai FC, who have gathered a negative impression for time wasting this season, were trying to utilize that tactic as Khalid Jamil was heard screaming “gir jaa” (fall down) to his players as the match entered injury time. Odafa Okalie, Mohun Bagan’s highest scorer for last two seasons stepped up to take the corner kick, quite possibly last chance of a goal in that match. Mohun Bagan fans, braving a blazing sun to watch their favourite team were urging the Nigerian to move into the box to see if he can score a goal but he persisted on his position near the corner flag. He took a low corner, the kind that gets you regular goals in FIFA07 video game, it hit an opponent player before it crept into the net. Delirium.
Scene Two – Few days later Mohun Bagan were playing Air India, technically a relegation six pointer. The Green & Maroon brigade looked completely out of reach at one point in the game as goals from Tolgay Ozbey and Odafa ensured that they were leading 2-0. Despite the score-line Mohun Bagan forwards squandered almost a dozen chances to extend their lead. After a while, surely enough, Air India had grabbed two goals and tied the score. To make things worse, Mohun Bagan’s in-form defender Eche was red carded as he followed Air India ‘keeper who was sent off during second half. Air India seemed to have rescued a crucial point for the team from Mumbai but there was more drama left. Deep into the six minutes of injury time Rahim Nabi moved along the right-wing before looping in a cross into the box. In stepped Denson Devadas, slotting in the match winner. Delirium. Again.
Denson’s goal reminded a lot of Mohun Bagan fans about NS Manju’s famous last gasp goal when the club challenged for I-League crown the last time under Karim Bencharifa. Older fans went back further to reminisce about an equally famous goal scored by Uday Konar, coming off the bench, when Bagan last won the league more than a decade ago.
In a lot of ways, Mohun Bagan fans are finally beginning to dream about their team after a particularly disastrous season. Under Karim Bencharifa Mohun Bagan are playing some of the most inspirational football seen in last 5 years from the team and they are showing healthy signs of not giving up till the final whistle. Indeed, Mohun Bagan is unbeaten in 10 I-League matches now and has won 4 out of last 5 matches, a record unmatched by any I-League team this year. This record included an unprecedented 5-1 win away in Goa against an in-form Sporting and defeating Dempo in I-League for the first time in more than three years.
A number of factors have contributed to this rise. Karim Bencharifa’s coaching is the first and the most important factor. He has stabilized defence, despite Mohun Bagan conceding goals in every game. And he has finally managed to use Odafa and Tolgay together with devastating impact. The Australian is scoring for fun now and looks to be enjoying his time in Bagan for the first time this season. The Moroccan coach has also strengthened the team mentally.
Individually a number of players have risen to the occasion other than Odafa and Tolgay. CS Sabeeth has been among goals and assists and he acts as a crucial buffer to enable Odafa and Tolgay combine properly. Echezona, perhaps the most under-rated foreign recruit for the club during summer, has turned into a defensive rock in past few months and is possibly the most consistent Mohun Bagan player this season. Denson Devadas lacks consistency but has often shone brightly in first half of matches. Winter recruit Quinton Jacobs has also made an important impact, despite limited play-time, as his passing range has become an asset. Aibor Khongjee has also played well whenever he got a chance.
After all the drama this season Mohun Bagan is finally looking at a bright future. Mohun Bagan officials absolutely cannot afford to repeat their mistakes of past and must retain Bencharifa for multiple seasons and allow him to compose the team. Bagan officials have made unbalanced teams in past few seasons and managed to destroy seasons even before they started so it is vital that they allow a technical person to handle team composition. Bencharifa has a good record with youth development and the likes of Sabeeth and Manish Bhargav will improve under him further.
Is United Sikkim the worst team to ever play in I-League? This question can be raised after United’s latest humiliation in I-League. Any signs of progress after a 5-0 win over Air India in last round were dispelled quickly as they slumped to a 9-0 landslide against Salgaocar. This is the third time they have lost by a big margin, after a 10-1 loss against Prayag and 7-0 reverse against Dempo. In IFA Shield they conceded 14 goals in three matches and are almost sure to get relegated this season. Their form is a sharp contrast to that of Salgaocar who have turned a corner thanks to David Booth and a wonderful winter transfer campaign. They have come out of relegation zone with flying colours and can realistically target a top-5 finish now.
Their maiden I-League title may be out of the reach now but Pune FC can still finish second after they ended ONGC’s almost six month long unbeaten streak at home thanks to a goal from James Moga. Santosh Kashyap’s team didn’t have their best game in Delhi and the South Sudanese striker took advantage of that to score his 11th goal this season in first half injury time. ONGC still remain in top-10 despite the loss.
Trevor Morgan’s decision to speak out in press about his decision to possibly leave the club in next season, while his team is challenging for the title, can and should be questioned. East Bengal didn’t look like a side which had its crosshairs firmly on the title as they slumped to a 1-1 draw at home against Sporting which almost ends their title aspirations. After losing the IFA Shield final East Bengal have done well in AFC Cup but have drawn four consecutive matches in I-League now denting a serious blow to their title aspirations.
Shillong Lajong picked up an absolutely crucial victory against Mumbai FC and eased their relegation fears. A fine 2-0 victory was capped off by goals from Sushil Singh and Minchol Son in each half. Lajong move to 25 points from 23 matches after this win.
Prayag United will be looking to finish in top-3 and they strengthened their position with a dominant victory over Pailan Arrows thanks to goals from Ranty Martins, Kayne Vincent and Mohammad Rafique. For Arrows, it was back to their usual form after a surprise win over Dempo in last round.
The final match of this round was also the marquee clash as Churchill Brothers faced off against Dempo in a potential title decider. The Goan derby lived up to its billing as the two teams played out a spectacular match. Ryuji Sueoka gave Dempo an early lead as he took advantage of Debabrata Roy’s cross to put his team ahead after 12 minutes. Both teams had a number of chances for rest of the half but it was the team in Red which equalized just a minute before half time whistle as Sunil Chhetri converted a free-kick. But Dempo regained their lead almost instantly as Climax Lawrence rounded off Sandeep Nandy, deep into injury time. Sunil chhetri once again score via a free-kick as Churchill Brothers tied the score-line just eight minutes into second half. Both teams had a number of chances in second half as Samir Naik made a late goal-line clearance to deny Churchill what would have been a match winner. The 2-2 draw doesn’t provide any conclusive result to the title race yet but it makes the race more exciting nonetheless.