Monday, Nov 03, 2003
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By Our Sports Reporter
This was the 29th title for the red-and-gold brigade in the more-than-a-century-old contest for local supremacy started in 1898. The title brought down curtains on the local season, which saw the city giants sharing two titles at stake. Mohun Bagan took the IFA Challenge Shield defeating East Bengal 5-3 via tiebreaker on September 28. The National Football League champion thus took its turn in the next meeting avenging the defeat almost in the same manner to end the season at honours even.
East Bengal, which created history becoming the first Indian club to win an international title triumphing in ASEAN club championship early in the season, slipped into doldrums stumbling in the domestic engagements. A quarterfinal exit in Federation Cup was followed by the defeat in the IFA Shield final. The Super Division title helped the team stabilise its credibility before it club started its campaign for the Durand Cup, which has already started in New Delhi.
East Bengal could have been an outright winner on points considering its performance in the first leg of Super Division, where the team enjoyed a five-point lead over Mohun Bagan winning all its 11 matches. But the second phase of the tournament saw the team losing one and drawing two matches to see the lead narrow to just two points forcing the championship play-off (the tournament rules specified a knockout play-off if the two top teams remained separated by two or less points).
The final showdown put East Bengal as the overwhelming favourites as it boasted a full squad strengthened by the inclusion of super strikers Baichung Bhutia and Nigerian Mike Okoro, both of whom missed the earlier duel owing to personal engagements. Mohun Bagan on the other hand was a depleted side missing its injured star Brazilian Jose Barreto and also the seasoned midfielder Basudev Mondal. But all the speculations fell flat as Bagan put up a gritty defending soaking in all the pressure put up by its opponents in the early session of play.
East Bengal came closest to scoring thrice in the first 22 minutes but the framework stood in the way denying the attempts of Mahesh Gawli, Suley Musah and Okoro in close succession. On the other hand Mohun Bagan got the break in the first session getting its nifty striker Ashim Biswas to score in the 23rd minute. Stung by the reverse, East Bengal got itself under pressure as both Bhutia and Okoro were successfully neutralised by a five-man Mohun Bagan defence. A penalty in the 60th minute which happened after the Bagan defender Lolendra Singh handled the ball inside own box saved the day for East Bengal as Musah equalised.
The remaining regulation time and following 30 minutes of extra-time failed to break the deadlock before the tiebreaker was enforced. The penalties trickled over into `sudden death' as both the teams shared the hits and misses in the stipulated five attempts each. The sudden death saw East Bengal custodian saving Mehtab Hussain's shot before Kalia Kulothungan scored his attempt to break the deadlock finally in favour of East Bengal.
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