The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Habeeb upbeat about making NFL top tier

Calcutta: Mohammedan Sporting are on the final lap of their revival run. Having fared fairly decently in the local league after a few forgettable seasons, the team coached by Mohammed Habeeb is now ready to fight for a slot in the upper tier of the National Football League (NFL).

SBT of Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai’s Air India and Haywards Sporting of Goa are the other teams to have reached the final stage of NFL second division and Mohammedan Sporting join them in the battle for two qualifying slots in Delhi from Wednesday.

“We were waiting for this all season, we are ready,” said Habeeb Friday, adding: “We are confident that we can make it. Everybody is fit and eager to snatch a berth in the higher division.” Mohammedan Sporting have never featured in the NFL proper.

Of the competitors in Delhi, Habeeb feels the Goan outfit looks stronger than the other two. “There are no foreigners in the other teams. We and Sporting of Goa have a slight advantage over the others because of this.”

The coach expects the Goans to post the biggest challenge for his team. “They are a young lot, good fighters. Their striker Dudu Omagbemi is doing well and they have beaten topflight teams in the past. In fact, all three of their foreigners are quite useful.”

The only encounter between Haywards Sporting and Mohammedan Sporting, in the earlier stage of the NFL qualifiers, ended goalless in Jamshedpur.

Of the other rivals, Habeeb thinks Air India is a mature team, having played in the NFL top tier earlier, while SBT’s strength is the understanding between their players. “They have been playing for quite some time now.”

About his own team, Habeeb said he will stick to the 4-3-3 formation which has paid good dividends. They will be the only team in the competition to do so. “Dipendu Biswas, Syed Nabi and Awoel Ibrahim have struck the right combination up front and there is no point in disturbing that.”

In midfield, Habeeb’s choices are Liberian Eugene Grey, Khemtang Paite/Arunava Sarkar and Iqbal Khan. Bhuvan Joshi, the regular left half, has a torn ligament, and is unlikely to be available. However, Habeeb seems pleased with Khan — a player from Jammu who joined the team after the local league.

First-choice goalkeeper Prasanta Dora missed the previous stage of qualifiers with an injury, forcing Habeeb to push the young Imran Khan under the bar. The coach says Imran did well and Dora has recovered, which leaves him with two solid goalkeepers to choose from.

“Players have to take a lot of load to fit into my plan. The first match against SBT on Thursday is most important. A win in that game will make our task easier,” said Habeeb.

Mohammedan Sporting will play a practice match against Tollygunge Agragami Saturday and leave for Delhi next day.

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