Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC involved in tight finish to win the I-League
The 8th Hero I-League is delicately poised
It has been the week of the minnows in the 8th Hero I-league. On 5th May, Kalyani Bharat FC upset league leaders Mohun Bagan 1-0. Then on 8th May, Bengaluru FC’s winning streak got halted. They were held to a 1-1 draw by a spirited Shillong Lajong at the Nehru stadium, Shillong.
Consequently, both Bagan and Bengaluru are now tied for the first spot with 32 points. Whilst the Kolkata outfit has played 16 matches, Bengaluru FC has played one match more. The advantage for Ashley Westwood’s outfit is that that their last match is a Round 22 encounter against Mohun Bagan at the Kanteerava stadium, Bangalore. This could be like a knock-out final. So, a nail biting finish to the 8th Hero I-league is expected.
There are several possible scenarios. If the teams are level on points going into the last round, Bengaluru FC will have to win as a draw would suit Bagan as the Kolkatan side had beaten Bengaluru 4-1 in their Round 7 home match. According to the I-League rules, if teams finish level on points then the head-to-head rule will be taken into account.
Mohun Bagan has experienced this sudden death situation once in the past. In the 6th Tata National Football league, in 2001-02, Bagan played their concluding Round 22 match against Churchill Brothers at the Nehru stadium, Margao on 15 April 2002, needing a win. If they had not won, Churchill Brothers would have emerged champions. Ably marshalled by Jose Ramirez Baretto, they scored the match-winner through their Nigerian recruit Abdul Wastu Saliu in the 73 minute and then hung onto the lead. A foreign referee was called to supervise this crucial game due to the excessive pressure and tension involved.
A balancing act for Bengaluru FC
Bengaluru FC’s remaining fixtures in the 8th Hero I-league are against Salgaocar FC at home on 17th May, versus Dempo away on 23 May and they take on Bagan at home on 30th May. However, they also play two AFC Cup matches during this period. On 12th May, they meet group leaders Persipura Jayapura in their concluding group league match. Both teams have qualified for the last 16 and the result will decide the group champions.
Then on 26th May, Bengaluru FC will play their Round of 16 match in the AFC Cup. They may have to travel to Hong Kong to play that match. If that happens the last round of I-League fixtures will be postponed by a day to May 31st. If the AFC Cup match is a home tie for Bengaluru FC, then the I-League will conclude as scheduled on Saturday, May 30th.
Ashley Westwood and Bengaluru FC now have a Hamlet-like dilemma. Do they aim for back to back titles in the I-league and not take the AFC Cup seriously or do they put all their toys in the I-League pram? There is also the honour of entering the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup in their debut year in the competition. They have depth in the squad and can try and fulfill both their ambitions. But the danger is they could fall between two stools. Westwood and his assistant coach Pradhyum Reddy have some hard decisions to take. They will have to keep into account, injuries and fatigue to key players.
Mohun Bagan blew a massive lead
Mohun Bagan must be kicking themselves for not having secured the title by now. Against Royal Wahingdoh, in a Round 17 match, Bagan led 2-1 till the 86th minute. Then striker Balwant Singh, helping out in defence conceded a penalty kick and got himself sent off for arguing with the referee. Down to 10 men, Bagan lost their composure and lost their away match 2-3.
Earlier this week, Bagan made the cardinal error of underestimating their opponents Bharat FC. The Kolkata club started their away match with reserve goalkeeper Shilton Paul. It is alleged that this was done due to political pressure. Mohun Bagan’s club elections are due next week. Shilton Paul is close to the club supremo Anjan Mitra. It is heard that Mitra phoned and persuaded Sanjoy Sen to drop in-form custodian Debjit Mazumdar and give Shilton, who was club captain for the season, a chance in this match. The move back-fired as a rusty Shilton conceded a weak goal by kicking the ball straight onto the onrushing Bharat FC striker Subhash Singh and it eventually found its way into the net.
Dropping Debjit Mazumdar, who had excelled in all their previous 8th I-league matches, was a mistake. For if Bagan had picked up at least one or three points against the then bottom-placed Bharat FC, they could have been in a better position to win the I-league title for the first time since 2002.
Mohun Bagan now has four matches left. Their away matches are against Sporting Clube de Goa on 16th May and Bengaluru FC on 30th, which may be shifted to the 31st. Bagan’s two home matches are at Barasat against Royal Wahingdoh on 20th May and Sporting Clube de Goa on 23rd May. If they win both their home matches and draw against Bengaluru, then the I-league title could return to Kolkata for the first time since East Bengal became champions in 2004.