With the I-League title already being decided in the earlier round, all eyes were on the relegation battle between Mohammedan Sporting and Churchill Brothers; and in the end the Kolkata club did not manage to break their dubious record of failing to stay afloat in the country’s top division for two consecutive seasons. Mohammedan, who received a lifeline after defeating Mumbai FC 2-1 on Sunday, went down to the second tier following Churchill’s win over Salgaocar by the same margin a day later. The 2012/13 I-League champions finished the season in 12th spot with 25 points from 24 games, just a point and two places above the relegation spot occupied by Mohammedan. At the other end of the table, East Bengal clinched second spot with a 3-0 win over United Sports. As a result, the Red and Golds may feature in next season’s AFC Cup along with champions Bengaluru FC.
The Tale of Mohammedan this Season
There was a lot of expectation in the Black and White Camp at the start of the season. Bola Masud was named the manager of the club, who made it into the top flight after a gap of four seasons. Mohammedan made heads turn when they roped in experienced foreigners Luciano Sabrosa, Josimar da Silva Martins, Penn Orji and Tolgay Ozbey, who joined Dempo during the winter transfer window. In addition, the club also signed a clutch of talented Indian individuals to complete a very good squad. It seems Mohammedan were heading in the right direction when they lifted the Durand Cup. But a poor run in the Kolkata League, coupled with a weak start in the I-League made the club part ways with Masud, who also lost the dressing room.
Sanjoy Sen, who guided the club back to the I-League was handed the charge of the club. Sen looked to have steadied the ship following Mohammedan’s triumph in the IFA Shield and the Black and White’s positive displays in the Federation Cup. Mohammedan failed to progress beyond the knock out rounds of the Federation Cup, but they were undefeated in the tournament, winning two and drawing one of their three group stage matches. However, Sen’s side failed to transform their form in the I-League, where they continued to look a sorry team. One also feels that the club missed a trick with Ozbey. The Australian, who was pretty mediocre during his Mohammedan stint, was at his best goalscoring form in Dempo colours. In spite of all these factors, Mohammedan were expected to beat the drop due to their decent squad.
However, a big reason behind the Kolkata giants getting relegated was that their talented set of individuals never really gelled as a team. The likes of Rakesh Masih, Ishfaq Ahmed, Rahim Nabi and Mehrajuddin Wadoo amongst others would have walked into any of the other 12 I-League teams, but their performances were inconsistent throughout the course of the season. Mohammedan lost six and drew six of their 24 I-League fixtures, while losing the rest. The Durand and Shield champions’ inability to convert draws into wins, coupled with their tendency of losing matches from favourable conditions came back to haunt them badly as they bid adieu to the country’s top domestic tournament once again.
Mohammedan made the I-League relegation battle more interesting by defeating Mumbai FC 2-1 on Sunday, but their efforts did not pay off as they were relegated following Churchill’s 2-1 win over Salgaocar the next day. However, Taro Hasegawa and Penn Orji’s strikes ensured that they bid farewell to the I-League with their heads held high.
East Bengal, who lost the championship battle to Bengaluru FC in the previous round, had something to cheer about after they piped Salgaocar in the race for the second spot. Goals from Abhishek Das, Chidi Edeh and Seminlen Doungel against United Sports helped the Red and Gold to be the runners-up of this I-League with 43 points from 24 games. The win over their Kolkata rivals made sure that East Bengal finished the season in second spot for the third time in four seasons. Salgaocar, who were also in the race for the final AFC Cup qualification spot, lost to Churchill in the final game to finish four points behind East Bengal.
Mohun Bagan finished their forgettable campaign on a high following their 2-1 win over Shillong Lajong on Sunday. The Green and Maroon, who released their under-firing striker Odafa Okolie a couple of days before the fixture, opened the scoring through Pankaj Moula in the sixth minute. Christopher Chizoba then struck the winner in the 75th minute after Boithang Haokip equalised for the visitors at the Salt Lake Stadium. Mohun Bagan’s sixth I-League win of the campaign came much to the joy of Karim Bencherifa, who may have overseen his final game in charge of the club.
Churchill needed the full three points in their last game to remain in the I-League, and the Federation Cup champions did just that by beating fellow Goan outfit Salgaocar 2-1 on Monday. The Red Machines went ahead in the sixth minute when Augustin Fernandes put the ball into his own net. Darryl Duffy leveled matters for Salgaocar in the first-half itself, but Churchill’s nerves were calmed when Balwant Singh scored the winner in the 65th minute.
Champions Bengaluru FC capped off their fine debut season with a 2-1 win over Sporting Clube de Goa. Robin Singh’s 59th-minute strike cancelled out Boima Karpeh’s first-half opener, before Beikhokhei Beingaichho scored the winner in the closing stages of the match. The win helped Ashley Westwood’s side to finish the season with 47 points from 24 games.
As mentioned earlier, East Bengal made sure of a second spot finish by defeating United Sports 3-0 on Monday. After a goalless opening 45 minutes, Armando Colaco’s side took the lead when United Sports custodian Abhijit Das flew into the net along with the ball to thwart a cross from East Bengal right-back Abhishek Das. Chidi then doubled his side’s advantage in the 84th minute before Len scored the third and final goal just six minutes later.
In a mid-table battle, Dempo thumped Pune FC 3-0 to finish the season in the sixth spot, one ahead of the Red Lizards. Fakhruddin Amiri grabbed a brace for the five time I-League champions, while India international Jeje Lalpekhlua scored his team’s third. Dempo, who enjoyed a great second-half in the I-League this term, finished with 35 points from 24 games.