The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bagan make EB toil for title

Calcutta: Ashim Biswas’ brilliant first-half goal was neutralised with a penalty conversion by Suley Musah in the latter session, and the deadlock was taken into sudden-death shootouts before East Bengal clinched their 29th IFA league title at the Salt Lake Stadium Sunday with a 6-5 aggregate verdict over Mohun Bagan.

The form book was proving true, the way most first half sorties looked. Following an early Biswas-Rennedy misdirected adventure, there were East Bengal attacks on all menus. That was also when the saga of misses for the red-gold brigade started. Okoro’s seventh-minute shot came off the crosspiece during a pressure situation in the Mohun Bagan box.

It was a good ploy to use Alvito D’Cunha as dummy and in switching flanks in attack as Bhaichung Bhutia was expectedly kept on a marker leash. While Bhaichung took his minders off the line, Okoro could penetrate. But Sunday, unfortunately, Okoro’s only blind spot was the goal.

Despite the defensive Bagan formation, there were deceptive individual moves, like Rennedy Singh’s, in the 13th minute. He sped across off a counter-attack move and floated across the goalline. As the ball swerved, Sangram Mukherjee, under the East Bengal bar, managed to palm it away.

Not surprisingly, coach Subhas Bhowmick’s strategy of trying to keep Suley Musah down to sweeper did not work. The East Bengal skipper loped up often in attack, and in the 23rd minute passed at the goalmouth to Okoro. From very close range, Okoro headed out, shooting in a tearing hurry.

The relief in the Bagan defence was translated into a tearaway counter-attack through Lolendra Singh that Biswas picked up 25 yards from the goal. Biswas received, and finding Sangram well advanced of his charge swiftly lobbed the ball over the ’keeper’s head. The ball looped onto the goalline and bounced into the roof of the netting. It can easily be termed as one of the best goals of this league.

The general rhythm was disturbed, but attacks continued on either side — Rennedy messing up at one end, Musah heading over from close at the other. All through, though Bhaichung seemed pretty much low-key. He was marked alright, but for a player of his class this was hardly a handicap. Biswas did break free of his markers for Bagan.

East Bengal mounted concerted attacks in the second half and 17 minutes into the session, in a goalmouth melee, the ball took Manitombi Singh’s hand. Maybe the ball would have gone elsewhere than the goal, but it was Fifa referee Kamaleswaran Shankar’s decision to award the penalty. Musah converted with ease to restore parity.

Play could have been competitive yet, but Biswas pulled a muscle and had to be pulled out of action (coach Aloke Mukherjee later said it was neither the old injury nor was it serious). That put the reins on Bagan’s adventures.

Action gravitated towards midfield till regulation time ended. Soccer in extra time was dull despite coach Mukherjee pushing in Sunil Chhetri. Maybe he made a mistake in substituting youngster Bilifang Narzary with Imran Khan under the bar. Khan remained unsettled in this big match situation. Bagan’s Marcos Parreira shot onto the crosspiece in the first of the shootouts, but Bhaichung returned the compliment when he shot onto the left post.

Palash Karmakar’s rising shot was saved by Sangram, but Alvito’s powerful chip took the crosspiece and went off from the goalline immediately after.

East Bengal’s troubled title-clash finally ended when Mehtab Hossain’s chip in the sudden death was saved by Sangram and Mahesh Gawli slotted home.

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