From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 21, 2010

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FOOTBALL / FEDERATION CUP

The resurrection of East Bengal

Abhra Mondal’s heroics under the bar ensure East Bengal its sixth Federation Cup. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

AP

Great revival... East Bengal players celebrate with the Federation Cup.

Having endured two seasons of title drought, East Bengal had to rely on a soft-spoken Belgian to turn its staggering fortune around. Coach Philippe de Ridder, who runs his own football development programme, was instrumental in hauling East Bengal out of its biggest crisis in recent times. The 31st edition of the Federation Cup — the symbol of supremacy in Indian club football, played on the lines of the English FA Cup — was all about tales of celebration and disappointment as the Kolkata giant emerged champion, dashing the hopes of Northeast’s darling outfit, Shillong Lajong FC.

The clashes between the established powers from Goa and Bengal and the new club in the elite league, Shillong Lajong FC, turned an otherwise jejune fixture in the Indian football calendar into an interesting tournament. East Bengal’s triumph in the final via the tiebreaker gave credence to the fact that the new force in Indian football — Shillong Lajong FC — is here to stay.

In the final, played at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Guwahati, Northeast’s only I-League representative won the hearts of the crowd with its spirited performance against the mighty Kolkata outfit. Shillong Lajong FC could well have won the title had not East Bengal’s custodian, Abhra Mondal, stayed firm under the bar to save the North-eastern team’s attempts following a barren 120 minutes (including the regulation and extra times) of action.

East Bengal had spent the last two seasons in the shadows of regression as its former coach dabbled unsuccessfully with different combinations. But after Philippe de Ridder took charge of the club, he first worked on instilling confidence in the players by making them play in positions they were accustomed to. “The game is much about getting the mind over body. Much of the match is won and lost in the mind,” explained the Belgian.

“The recipe was to simply get the players to believe in themselves and allow them to play their natural game,” de Ridder added.

Entering the tournament as the underdog, with nothing much to flaunt in terms of performance in the preceding eight rounds of the I-League, East Bengal set about transforming itself chiefly on the strength of its defensive capabilities. The team’s defence cornered glory for accomplishing a rare feat of not conceding even a single goal in the tournament. It was quite an achievement and the man responsible was the team’s bulwark, Nigerian Uga Okpara.

RITU RAJ KONWAR

East Bengal’s hero… goalkeeper Abhra Mondal pulls off a spectacular save during the tiebreaker in the final against Shillong Lajong FC.

Mehrajuddin Wadoo, the brawny player from Kashmir who came in as a cover for Okpara in East Bengal’s central defence, was a revelation too. Nirmal Chetri and Saumik Dey kept a strong vigil on the flanks, making the East Bengal defence impervious. Abhra Mondal’s alacrity under the bar also helped the team gain in confidence.

East Bengal, however, was only a little above average in the other departments, managing just solitary goal wins against JCT Mills and Salgaocar SC in the group league stage to move into the semifinals. The team’s confidence reached the peak in the last-four stage, while playing against its traditional rival Mohun Bagan.

Having suffered a 5-3 drubbing in its last encounter against Mohun Bagan in the I-League, East Bengal played the grudge match with all ferocity. The 2-0 win against Mohun Bagan — Yusif Yakubu and Mehtab Hussain were the scorers — was indeed sweet revenge for East Bengal.

Defending champion Mohun Bagan, which has the distinction of winning the title for the most number of times — 13 — moved into the semifinals after seeing off tough opponents such as Mahindra United, Chirag United SC and Mohammedan Sporting. This was arguably the toughest group in the league stage.

East Bengal’s major challenge came in the final, where de Ridder’s tactical acumen was pitted against the fighting qualities of Shillong Lajong, coached by Stanley Rozario. In fact Rozario had a personal score to settle with East Bengal. He had lost his job with the Kolkata club after his team lost to Mohun Bagan in the Federation Cup the previous season.

Rozario, who has had a fairly long stint as assistant coach of the Indian team, proved his mettle by helping Shillong Lajong with its stupendous run. The team enjoyed good crowd support both in Guwahati, the venue of the semifinals and final, and Silchar, in southern Assam, where it played the group league.

Shillong Lajong sprang the biggest surprise of the tournament by conquering the mighty Goan outfit, Churchill Brothers. The I-League champion had been undefeated in its previous 26 matches before falling to the North-eastern side in the semifinals. With the other Goan teams, Dempo SC, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar SC, crashing out in the group league stage, Churchill Brothers was the sole Western Indian team in the fray. However, its hopes of a maiden entry into the final of the Federation Cup were demolished by Shillong Lajong, which won on a 29th minute goal scored by Seikhohau Tuboi, the spearhead of the North-eastern team’s attack.

The final presented a different equation for Shillong Lajong which was handicapped by the suspension of two of its foreign players, defender Daniel Bidemi and midfielder James Giblee, owing to previous bookings.

Rozario, nevertheless, was confident that his team would be able to overcome this setback. Shillong Lajong justified its coach’s faith by repulsing the relentless attacks of East Bengal. However, when it came to scoring from the spot in the tiebreaker, Shillong Lajong’s boys failed miserably.

Abhra Mondal was East Bengal’s hero, saving all the three Shillong Lajong attempts to give his side its sixth Federation Cup. The victory also ensured East Bengal a berth in the AFC Cup.

THE RESULTS

FINAL

East Bengal 3 beat Shillong Lajong FC 0 — on penalties.

SEMIFINALS

East Bengal 2 (Yusif Yakubu 56, Mehtab Hussain 88) beat Mohun Bagan 0.

Shillong Lajong FC 1 (S. Tuboi 29) beat Churchill Brothers 0.



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