"I think there’s no doubt that this is the greatest achievement in the history of our game... I think it’s unprecedented," Jamie Carragher had exclaimed after Leicester City produced an awe-inspiring English Premier League title win last season.
A year later, and a little over 8,000 km away, Aizawl FC achieved a similar feat when they were crowned the 'champions of India' after a 1-1 draw over Shillong Lajong FC on the final day of the Hero I-League 2017.
At the final whistle, as Aizawl FC goalkeeper Albino Gomes looked relieved for Lajong had come close to securing a late winner and emotions ran high among the rest of the Aizawl squad, thousands of hearts broke in Kolkata – often dubbed as the footballing capital of the country – even while the rest of the nation marvelled at the fairy-tale season which Aizawl had lived, especially when Indian football is at such a crucial juncture.
Aizawl’s triumph, as poetic as it has been, came at the cost of the oldest football club in Asia, the perennial giants who failed to cross the finishing line for the second consecutive season.
Mohun Bagan had started the 2017 Hero I-League in blistering form, winning their first four games with a combined scoreline of 9-1. The Mariners were the frontrunners – an expensively-assembled forward line consistently found the back of the net, while Katsumi Yusa controlled the tempo from the midfield and the defence lived up to its billing.
The chinks in their armour were first seen in the 3-2 win over Aizawl FC in early February, when the would-be champions all but pushed Sanjoy Sen’s side to the end of their wits. Then came the Boro derby, where a goalless draw against East Bengal signified much more than just two points dropped – Bagan missed early chances to get on the scoresheet, only for their opponents to find the sail halfway through and dominate for the rest of the proceedings – a theme which continued until the last game of the season.
Bagan didn’t suffer a loss in the league until their tenth game of the season, but a few dropped points here and there cost them the title.
Here are three matches which settled the title race against Mohun Bagan Athletic Club:
2-2 Draw against Mumbai FC
A late equaliser from Balwant Singh helped Mohun Bagan salvage a point at home against Mumbai FC, a club which was struggling at the bottom of the league table at that time.
Although Bagan had taken the lead through Pritam Kotal, lapses in concentration from their central defensive pairing of Anas Edathodika and Eduardo Ferreira meant Sen’s side had to chase the game against a resolute Mumbai defence for the rest of the ninety minutes.
An easy win was in the offing for Bagan and could have helped them close the gap on leaders Aizawl FC, but the Mariners were undone by their own complacency.
0-0 Draw against Bengaluru FC
Three days after their match against Mumbai FC, Bagan would go on to play a goalless draw against the defending champions Bengaluru FC in a game of chances.
Mohun Bagan dominated the first half – with Katsumi Yusa being at his influential best – but as has been the case for most of the season, goals eluded the Bagan forwards.
1-0 Loss against Aizawl FC
Mohun Bagan went into the title decider on the penultimate week of the season with all the advantages in their kitty – a win in the reverse tie, an opponent who was clearly stunned by the intensity of the situation and an incredibly talented squad.
However, Sen’s side lacked a key component which ultimately proved to be crucial – the passion of the underdogs and the quintessential necessity of achieving the unthinkable.
Just like their rest of the season, Bagan started the game with flamboyance but failed to convert their chances while Aizawl slowly but steadily came into their own as the match progressed.
In the end, the team whose entire budget cost just a little over Norde’s annual salary emerged victorious in front of their raucous home crowd – not relying on luck but on efficiency.
While possession-based tactics and free-flowing football may appease fans, as Pep Guardiola is finding out in his first season in England, it is goals which win matches and solid defensive ethics which act as the cornerstone of winning the league – a fact Bagan failed to realise until it was too late.
The Mohun Bagan squad, as well as the fans, would look back on a number of critical moments which could have changed the course of their season but, holistically, it was their sloppiness in front of goal and their lack of poise in key matches which spelt their downfall.
Updated Date: May 02, 2017 10:09 AM