Favourites Dempo just about held their nerve in their penultimate round clash against East Bengal to force a goalless draw and clinch their fifth I-League title in eight years. While they were lucky not to concede in the first session at the Nehru Stadium in Margao yesterday, they admirably shut shop in the second half and forced the requisite point to give them the honours. It is the eighth year in a row that teams from Western India (Goa and Maharashtra) have denied the former kings of Kolkata the title since East Bengal last won it in 2003-04.
Here is what the champs did right and what went wrong with the others…
DEMPO SPORTS CLUB CLUB
The blues were helped immensely by the rip roaring start to their campaign when they won seven matches on the trot; they almost never surrendered their pole position thereafter. The experience of their seasoned campaigners (captain Mahesh Gawli, Climax Lawrence, Sameer Naik etc.,), the steadying hand of coach Armando Colaco who came back to take charge after a mid-season cardiac arrest, the deluge of goals by Ranty Martins (26) buoyed by minor contributions from the rest of the pack (Koko Sakibo, Joaquim Abranches, Clifford Miranda, Anthony Pereira etc.,) all contributed to their massive tally and ultimate triumph.
Perhaps, midfielder Densill Theobald, the Trinidad & Tobago 2006 World Cupper, could have done more as he did not quite bring the same thrust and goals that Beto did for Dempo during his heydeys.
Dempo did not have the additional pressure of competing in the AFC competition unlike East Bengal and Salgoacar. Still, they suffered some silly setbacks and unexpected losses to Air-India, Prayag United and Pune FC at home which could have derailed their challenge. But fortune favours the brave and Dempo remained confident till the end. For sure, Dempo are the best and most consistent Indian club in the new millennium and Armando Colaco the most successful coach. He certainly deserves a royal salute! He will however have to inject young blood into the system next season onwards if he wants to take his legacy forward.
EAST BENGAL CLUB
For the second season in a row Trevor Morgan’s side were in the hunt till almost the bitter end and were unlucky not to snatch full points yesterday and take the title race into the final round. They may not have scored as many goals as Dempo or arch rivals Mohun Bagan, and Tolgay Ozbey may not have been as prolific as Ranty Martins or Odafa Okolie, but he got them vital goals and crucial wins.
The red & golds did well to recover from a poor start (one point from their first two matches) but the 20th round away defeat to Shillong Lajong (2-1) and a 0-1 loss to Prayag United in the 18th round thanks to goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s blooper, cost them valuable points. But early in the campaign the three-time champions looked in fine fettle with Ozbey, Penn Orji and Uga Okpara being their standout performers. Next season, they will have to eliminate the niggles that cost them the crown this time around.
MOHUN BAGAN ATHLETIC CLUB
Barring the 5-0 rout against Dempo in Goa, the green & maroon brigade started off well for a change with their talismanic signing Odafa Okolie (22) getting the goals that he was lavishly paid to bring in. But hapless Sunil Chhetri could have contributed more and the defence could have let in less. Subrata Bhattacharya will also rue the losses to Prayag United and Sporting Clube de Goa and the costly draws against Air-India away (2-2) in the 21st round and HAL (0-0) at home in the 23rd round which prematurely brought an end to their campaign.
Yet another poor start (five points from the first six games) caused by the absence of their key foreign striker Mandjou Keita (12 goals) due to injury as well as No 1 goalkeeper Subrata Paul, and also that of Jeje Lalpekhlua later on, took the sting out of their campaign. Yet, the Red Lizards did well to recover as the league progressed and notched creditable victories over Salgaocar (1-3 & 2-0), Churchill Brothers (0-2), Mohun Bagan (2-1) and Dempo (0-1). But their inability to take full points against lesser sides like Pailan Arrows, Mumbai FC, Shilling Lajong and Air India set them back immensely. Derrick Pereira’s boys however deserve credit if they manage a top three finish given the circumstances.
CHURCHILL BROTHERS SC
For a big-budget side boasting a wealth of talents, the Varca-based family club should have achieved more. Strikers Henry Antchouet and N D Opara tallied almost 20 goals between themselves but individually never scaled the dizzy heights that Okolie and Yakubu Yusif did for the Goans in earlier years. And Beto only showed occasional flashes of his genius that helped Dempo script a clutch of triumphs earlier. The perennial pressure to deliver results from the owners saw Portuguese coach Manuel Gomes get the boot after he faltered against the likes of Pailan Arrows (0-0) and Mumbai FC (2-1) among others, despite taking them to the top of the table after round 10. So when the Carlos Pereira-Subhas Bhowmick combine took over in mid-February it was too late to save the sinking ship.
SALGAOCAR SPORTS CLUB
After winning the Federation Cup, the shocking loss of form of Karim Bencherifa’s squad in the first half of the I-League (13 points from 11 games) was inexplicable. And while the defence marshaled by Luciano Sabrosa leaked in the least number of goals in the competition, the forwards were not productive enough for the defending champions to flourish, in particular Chidi Edeh, whose returns were paltry.