I-League: Aizawl's win over Mohun Bagan puts them on cusp of beating monumental odds
One point is all Aizawl need now. One point to create history. To do a Leicester in Mizoram. A draw away to Shillong Lajong — their neighbours and closest derby rivals. A team they have already beaten at home.
According to Opta, a corner leads to a goal only 3.2% of the time. Statistics gathered from games across top divisions from across the world, reveal that more often than not, a corner will go wrong. 3.2%! There is more chance of you spotting a leopard in Mumbai, than corners leading to goals! A miserable set of odds for a set piece, that — let’s be honest — every supporter gets excited as hell about.
For Aizawl FC, 3.2% is reasonable. They have battled far worse.
Mizoram is home to 54 players in the two divisions of the I-League, the most of any other north-eastern state. And yet, never have any come anywhere close to the title. Aizawl FC was a relegated team, forced back because of a management decision. They had no right to be challenging for the title, that too so consistently and brilliantly, till the penultimate game of the season. For the 11,203 inside the stadium, every corner was 50-50. They rose up each time, and forcefully sat back down.
The back stories to this game were repeated so often, and told so many times, that they had become all too familiar. Familiar enough to make you feel like there was something about to go wrong. The smell of pessimism, large and dominant.
The first, was Jeje Lalpekhlua, the Mizo boy, the state’s biggest sporting superstar, playing at home, in what was his state’s biggest footballing moment, ever. But Jeje would play for Mohun Bagan, hoping to dash their dreams (he came close too, but for a mistimed swing of the foot, one that conspiracy theorists in Kolkata will be licking their lips over).
There was the Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna, who had been Aizawl’s fulcrum for the season, the point of attack, defence and everything in between.
Their coach, Khalid Jamil, a man looking to restore a reputation.
The fans, the mad fans, who thronged the stadium and made it a high-altitude, cloud covered hell. Each time was a last concert, and each time a new beginning.
And then there was Mohun Bagan. 100 years, of Indian football encapsulated in the management (and mismanagement) of one club. The club that claimed the most titles, the most passionate of fans, the most everything. Surely, they, the club of the Bengali intellegensia, wouldn’t be denied by a club from a state that only came to being in 1987. Odds vs evens.
This was the game everyone wanted to watch. Except, you really couldn’t. At a misty stadium in Aizawl, shrouded almost permanently under cloud cover, dripping wet, there wasn’t much action to go by for the first 45. The rain was everywhere — on the cameras, the red dressed spectators lining the stands, the players — inevitably permeating into TV screens.
It didn’t make for much viewing. Whatever little there was, was mostly from Bagan — who were also dripping, in talent, individuality, panache and street smartness. They broke the play and made the play, and Aizawl looked lost at home.
Bagan seemed to have started the normalisation process in the 3rd minute, Katsumi Yusa splitting Aizawl’s defence open to lay it on a plate for Darryl Duffy. Albino Gomes came off his line fast though, blocking what would’ve surely been the title blow. That was that for the first half, despite the dominant play from the Mariners, nothing else materialising through the mist.
But with the whistle for the second half, the clouds parted, and suddenly Aizawl could see where they had to go.
Those 11,203 inside the stadium had found new voice, as wave upon wave of Aizawl attack hit the Bagan back four. This wasn’t a team playing on the break, using the long ball, or the spaces to exploit fancy opposition. Aizawl were the ones creating the triangles, the passes, and the chances. At the centre again was their 34-year-old Syrian, Al Amna.
They had come from the break energised, the banks of four replaced by more variety. Where earlier their wingers were runners, they became controllers. Distribution to the wings was to stretch Bagan, stretch them till the centre broke.
And yet, there was a desperation for the goal, a desperation that caused frayed minds to jump into two legged tackles, make the wrong final pass, or the wrong run off the ball. Bagan seemed like they would hold on. They had withstood the barrage, and were finally, again, controlling some of the play. Ten more minutes and then they would do the inevitable in the final game of the season. Complete the normalisation. Right the world. No more Leicesters. No more Aizawls.
All this before the three per cent came to play. Al Amna delivered, a corner to the back post, swinging in — the best variety of corner, Simon Kuper argued in Soccernomics — Zohmingliana Ralte meeting it square, beating Eduardo in the air, Debjit Mazumder flapping at thin air.
In the brief moments when the ball hit the back of the net, and Ralte wheeled away celebrating, there seemed to be uncertainty. It came from nowhere but the pessimistic mind. Those closest wheeled away with him. The ones further waited till the referee pointed to the circle. Surely not. Not with seven minutes to go. Now, Bagan were sure to hit back with a vengeance.
But hold on Aizawl did, and they could’ve had another, if not for a failed Lalramchullova pass off a counter — a pass that could’ve led to the goal to seal it then and there.
One point is all they need now. One point to create history. To do a Leicester in Mizoram. A draw away to Shillong Lajong — their neighbours and closest derby rivals. A team they have already beaten at home.
But of course, Bagan have to win too. One has to ask, how much of a blow is this? Two defeats in three days. Title hopes fading away, AFC Cup knockout berth almost out of reach. Chennai City could yet do Aizawl a favour. What are the odds on that?
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