Carving their names down in Indian footballing history, Gokulam Kerala FC became the first team to win consecutive I-League titles as they downed Mohammedan SC 2-0 on Saturday with a masterfully calm and controlled display of football. Goals from Rishad and Emil Benny were enough for the Malabarians to hold down the Black Panthers, although they pulled a goal back through substitute Azharuddin Mallick.
Ahead of the kickoff at the iconic Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, the Black and White Brigade unveiled a tifo dedicated to Kolkata and its everlasting football culture, reading: "Kolkata, the Mecca of Indian Football. Then, now, forever." However, with the recent string of results that Kerala teams have had, be it in the Indian Super League, Santosh Trophy, or Indian Women's League, the Jewel of South India was threatening Bengal's stronghold in Indian football. So tonight was not only a game for the I-League trophy at play but also the bragging rights.
With over 40,000 supporters roaring in support of home side Mohammedan SC in unison, the Black Panthers started the game on the front foot. Andrey Chernyshov's men had to take the initiative as they didn't have the luxury of settling for a draw, unlike Gokulam. The Kolkata Giants earned an early free-kick. Both Nikola Stojanovic and Andelo Rudovic stood over it, however, the latter's attempted shot was parried away by the keeper.
Minutes later, the action rolled into the opposite box as Mohammedan SC defender Wayne Vaz put his body on the line to clear a low cross from Alex Saji. Stojanovic realized the need to get the supporters on their toes as he rallied them on while orchestrating the MDSP midfield from deep.
Although Mohammedan dominated the proceedings, the Gokulam defense maintained their discipline very well. In the 30th minute, Black Panthers talisman Marcus Joseph finally got into some goal-mouth action as he did well to wiggle past Bouba Aminou. But the Trinidadian striker slashed his shot wide.
However, the only gilt-edge opportunity of the half fell for Gokulam Kerala FC against the run of play. As the Malabarians broke on the counterattack in the 42nd minute, Jourdaine Fletcher raced down the pitch only to spot Mohammedan custodian Zothanmawia rushing outside his box towards the loose ball. The Jamaican forward, eyeing an open goal, unleashed a curling effort from almost 40-yards out, however, the shot was just wide of the target. The football gods had answered Mohammedan prayers as their hopes were still alive.
Almost immediately, however, Gokulam suffered another huge blow as Fletcher was stretchered off the field before the half-time break. Sreekuttan VS replaced him on the pitch.
As Mohammedan SC grow desperate Gokulam Kerala FC capitalize in the second half
As the referee blew the whistle for one final stretch of 45 minutes, Gokulam realized that the first-half error had rattled goalkeeper Zothanmawia and tested him with an early shot. But with Mohammedan SC growing desperate, the game opened up and in the 49th minute, Gokulam Kerala drew first blood through Rishad. The 26-year-old darted down the opposition half, outpaced the defenders and expertly buried the ball into the bottom left corner.
Warning bells started ringing for Mohammedan as they could see the title escaping their clutches. But the introduction of Azharuddin Mallick brought some much-needed flair into the Mohammedan SC attack. The former Mohun Bagan youngster was brought down just outside the opposition box by Aminou. Talismanic Marcus Joseph stood over the freekick and his effort, luckily for Mohammedan, deflected off Azharuddin into the back of the net restoring parity. The silence in the majestic stadium was lifted as MSDP supporters yet again started believing.
But their aspirations were cut short as the Calicut-based club responded almost immediately through Emil Benny. The Gokulam midfielder, who was brilliantly setup by Luka Majcen, dashed into the opposition half and slotted the ball into the bottom left corner. The Mohammedan keeper got a fingertip to it but couldn't keep the shot out. The camera panned towards the traveling Kerala fans who cheered their hearts out as they cruised towards the I-League title.
For the remainder of the half, Mohammedan continued to push their players forward while Vincenzo Alberto Annese's men were more than happy to sit back and defend their narrow lead. Marcus Joseph had multiple opportunities to restore parity, however, he failed to keep his header in the 75th minute and turn home a cross from Faisal Ali.
The best chance for Mohammedan fell to Faisal after Azharuddin put him through on goal with a brilliant lofted pass in the 85th minute, but the former couldn't reach the ball ahead of the on-rushing Rakshit Dagar.
The Gokulam shot-stopper stepped in with a couple clutch saves in injury time off Rudovic to maintain their lead and carry them to their second consecutive title. With the win, Gokulam ended their I-League campaign with 43 points, while Mohammedan SC finished a close second with 37 points.
The final day of the 2021-22 I-League posed a lot of questions. Many were answered expertly by Gokulam Kerala FC on the ground. However, many more unraveled themselves as the referee blew the final whistle and Gokulam fans in the stands, maybe a dozen or so, screamed in euphoria. Does the tifo unveiled ahead of the game still stand true? Is Kolkata still the mecca of Indian football? Or has Kerala overtaken them given their victories in the Santosh Trophy, the I-League, the IWL and their success in the ISL?