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Friday, December 15, 2000

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JCT holds Mohun Bagan in opener

By K.P. Mohan

NEW DELHI, DEC. 14. Four goals in an opener is a rarity. Though two of them were of the fortuitous variety, defending champion Mohun Bagan and JCT, Phagwara, did enough to entertain a sparse crowd in the inaugural match of the fifth National Football League at the Ambedkar Stadium here on Thursday. JCT had to come back twice to earn this 2-2 draw, with all the goals coming in the second half.

Bagan should feel a little disappointed with the end result, for, it found the post twice in the second half, through stopper M. Suresh and R.C. Prakash. The latter had an incredible bungle off a one-two with Jose Barretto on the half-hour mark in the final session. Into injury time, Joao Dos Santos, of all people, slammed the ball into a fallen JCT goalkeeper, Arvind Kumar.

But then JCT deserved the draw if only for its resilience. The Phagwara defence, including the rookie, Pawan Kumar, did a fine job of containing Santos and Barretto to the extent possible while Hardip Sangha, as is his wont, kept floating those high balls from the wings to create confusion in the rival defence.

The first half action was patchy. Bagan looked a little jaded, its players looking rusty, especially Barretto. But Santos was his brilliant self. The Brazilian's speedy thrusts and passing stretched the JCT defence taut but it did not crack. Not until the opening minute of the second half.

That was when Basudeb Mondal found the far post from a difficult angle near the touchline with a hopeful lob after Santos had worked his way down the right flank and found his colleague via a defender's foot. The ball grazed the post and went in to the amazement of all.

Mondal nullified the good work he had done by committing an unnecessary foul, a shoulder charge on Ram Pal, about 40 yards away from the Bagan goal, on the left flank. The resultant free kick should have been routinely handled, but Sangha's floater into the box saw Hardip Gill rise unchecked for a header angled into the right corner.

The action picked up considerably hereafter. It was more of an open game in which Bagan came by the better chances but failed to convert while JCT, as always, depended more on counter-thrusts and the high centres from the flanks.

Bagan was ahead once again in the 20th minute as R.P. Singh sent Prakash chasing a brilliant through ball. When the former ITI star backpassed, Barretto was there for a first-time connection into the roof. But Bagan's joy was short-lived.

Off a free kick from the right, Harjinder Singh had one dipping into the far corner on the left, with Bagan goalkeeper Kalyan Choubey going up in vain as the ball bounced off an attacker's head. It was difficult to tell whether Choubey managed to get a touch or not. But as the ball fell and bounced in front of a crowded goal area and looked likely to enter the goal, with the defenders transfixed, Ram Pal managed to get a touch to get into the scorers' list.

Less than 20 minutes remained for close at that time and with coach Subroto Bhattacharya inducting a couple of fresh players into the fray, Bagan kept looking for the opening that would give the lead back to it.

The openings did come but not the goal. As Santos blew the last chance, crashing the ball into the fallen goalkeeper and shook his head in dismay, Subroto Bhattacharya, on the sidelines, had his hands on his forehead.

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