The competitiveness of this season’s I-League was once again highlighted in the last round of matches as the results kept both the title race and the battle for survival wide open. Only one team can win the league but as many as five still have a realistic chance while at the other end of the table, there is one relegation spot but as many as five are still unsafe.
Two fixtures in particular summed up the unpredictability of the league as rock-bottom Rangdajied United stunned league leaders Bengaluru FC in Shillong while relegation threatened Mohammedan Sporting upset Sporting Clube in Kolkata despite playing an entire half with ten men. Rangdajied seem to be at their best against the top sides as their only other home success was a thrilling victory over title-chasing Pune FC. They remain the favourites to go down but with four of their remaining seven fixtures in Shillong, last year’s second division champions still have hope of remaining in the top flight.
That cracking contest in Shillong took place on Saturday and reminded everyone about the difficulties of winning any fixture in this league but back on Friday Mohammedan Sporting gave another example. The Kolkata giants were second-from-bottom before their clash against second-placed Sporting Clube. But having beaten the Goan outfit away from home earlier in the season Sanjoy Sen’s side made a fast start as they went 2-0 up. However Sporting Clube pulled one back and then Mohammedan were reduced to ten just before the break.
Oscar Bruzon’s side couldn’t find a way past the ten men of Mohammedan in the second half as the hosts defended solidly and then substitute Nirmal Chettri struck the third late on to complete a memorable double over the Flaming Oranje. That result has given Mohammedan breathing space in the relegation battle while Sporting Clube remain in the title mix due to Bengaluru’s defeat in Shillong. Meanwhile, the goalless draw between Mumbai FC and Pune FC in Saturday’s Maharashtra derby further complicated things at both ends of the table.
All eyes of the Indian football fraternity in this round were of course on the big Kolkata derby but it turned out to be a drab encounter, lacking the usual passion and intensity both on and off the pitch. East Bengal took the lead in the first half despite being second best and then an error from their goalkeeper Gurpreet Sandhu allowed Mohun Bagan to equalise in the second period. A point didn’t help either side as both remain winless in three matches after the break with East Bengal struggling to mount a title challenge and Mohun Bagan still not guaranteed safety.
Back on Friday, Salgaocar defeated Shillong Lajong 3-1 to go fourth and move three points clear of the north-east club. With the rest of the top three failing to win on this matchday, Salgaocar are back in title contention and suddenly have momentum as they have notched up three straight wins with the new strike pairing of Darryl Duffy and Dudu Omagbemi looking dangerous. Going into the year’s first international break, only four points separates the top four while East Bengal, who are 11 points off the top, have three games in hand. The bottom five are also separated by just five points with rock-bottom Rangdajied having a game in hand over ninth-placed Mohun Bagan and a home fixture against the Mariners in less than two weeks.
Mohammedan Sporting 3-1 Sporting Clube; Salgaocar 3-1 Shillong Lajong; Rangdajied United 3-2 Bengaluru FC; East Bengal 1-1 Mohun Bagan; Mumbai FC 0-0 Pune FC
Game & Result of the round
Rangdajied United 3-2 Bengaluru FC
When Rangdajied United were beaten 3-0 by Bengaluru back in September, there was a huge gulf of class between the sides with Rangdajied doing justice to their reputation of being the favourites for the drop while fellow-debutants Bengaluru looked like a team capable of doing well in their first-ever top flight campaign. Rangdajied failed to win their first eight games, losing five of them and looked certain for relegation. Then the Shillong club were thrown a lifeline by IMG-Reliance as four of their contracted players including India’s Subrata Pal and Gouramangi Singh joined them on loan. Those additions seemed to galvanise their inexperienced squad as they recorded wins over Mohun Bagan and Pune and lost only once in their next six games.
As a proof of their improvement, Rangdajied held Bengaluru to a 1-1 draw in the Federation Cup, a result that eventually saw the JSW-owned club miss out on a semi-final berth. After the I-League break, Rangdajied suffered back-to-back defeats in Goa and once again were rock-bottom. But then the club management pulled off the signing of Ranti Martins, the top scorer of the last three I-League campaigns, in the winter transfer window and on the Nigerian’s debut, the north-east outfit produced one of their best performances of the season to get the better of the league leaders.
All eyes were on Ranti in this game but veteran wide midfielder Steven Dias made all the difference in the first half as he opened the scoring and then set up the second to ensure a 2-0 lead for the hosts at half time. Bengaluru were simply second best but started the second period strongly and capitalised on Rangdajied’s nerves by scoring twice in quick succession through Sunil Chhetri and Sean Rooney. At 2-2, all the momentum was with the visitors but just like their thrilling victory over Pune back in December, Rangdajied showed great character to score the winner and fittingly it was scored by Ranti, who could have also added a second to his account late on but for the woodwork.
The result has completely opened up the title race with Bengaluru failing to win in back-to-back games and five of their remaining seven fixtures are away from home. Meanwhile Rangdajied’s victory means that even the top-flight status of ninth-placed Mohun Bagan isn’t safe. They are strong at home with only two defeats in nine matches (including the local derby with Lajong) so the likes of Mohun Bagan, United SC and Sporting Clube won’t be fancying their trips to Shillong. This match was also a great advert for the I-League and more such upsets are expected to happen for the rest of the season so the key battles at both ends of the table are likely to go down to the wire.
Foreigner – Darryl Duffy (Salgaocar)
The Scotsman looks to have regained his good early season form as he scored for the first time in five I-League games. Duffy has certainly profited from the arrival of Dudu as it has allowed him to share the goal scoring burden and the match-winning brace against Lajong took his I-League tally to double figures
Indian – Steven Dias (Indian)
The 30-year-old is eager to return to the national team and performances like the one against Bengaluru FC will certainly keep him in contention. Dias scored a brilliant opener and set up the second as well in one of his best displays since getting omitted from the India team towards the end of 2011.
Thankfully the football grabbed all the headlines in this round with very little controversy. Predictably though, the officiating in matches involving the Big Three of Kolkata was a talking point. Referee Pratap Singh sent off Mohammedan’s Mehrajuddin Wadoo for a professional foul on Sporting Clube’s Beevan D’Mello. At that point, the score was 2-1 in favour of the Kolkata team and the black and whites went on to win the game so there weren’t many complaints from the Mohammedan camp. But it would have been a totally different scenario had Mohammedan lost the encounter as Mehraj wasn’t really the last man when he brought down D’Mello outside the box.
Kolkata derbies are always filled with controversial moments but thankfully there weren’t many this time as Santosh Kumar did justice to his growing reputation by always having control of proceedings. He was partly helped by the nature of the game as it lacked the usual edge of this fixture and Kumar didn’t even book a single player, with hardly any challenge meriting a yellow card. But there was one incident which could have ended up being ugly.
Kumar awarded East Bengal an indirect freekick inside the Mohun Bagan box after penalising goalkeeper Shilton Paul for handling a backpass. What followed was a comedy of errors as Katsumi Yusa took the ball away and went on a trademark run even before East Bengal’s Harmanjot Khabra touched the ball. The midfielder only put his boot around the ball and faked his kick but Santosh deemed it to be a touch and thus allowed Yusa to run away with the ball. Fortunately Yusa’s run was stopped by James Moga and there was no controversial goal for the green-and-maroon brigade.