Calcutta: The 40,000 odd swarming the Salt Lake Stadium stands were ready with flags, kites, flowers and even odd sprinkles of confetti. Needless to say, the colours were red and gold in anticipation of East Bengal’s National Football League triumph.
They had started beating drums and setting alight crackers even before the kick-off. Real celebrations started when Bhaichung Bhutia struck in the 19th minute, escalated when Douglas da Silva hit the second in the 71st and reached the crescendo when Dipankar Roy completed the tally eight minutes from time.
East Bengal emerged comprehensive 3-0 winners over Indian Bank in Wednesday’s 20th round tie to become the first team to defend India’s most cherished football crown. Their third title came in style, with two matches to spare. This is also East Bengal’s third title in four seasons.
Subhas Bhowmick’s team needed a win to accomplish the mission, against a team that has been relegated. The visitors had nothing to lose or gain, but still looked determined to make things difficult for the odds-on favourites. They resisted, even dominated a brief period of the second half before being finally swept away by a force that was far superior.
Twelve corner kicks for the home team as opposed to two for Indian Bank was a right indicator of which way things had gone.
It wasn’t a beautiful game, something the die-hards thought they would see, keeping in mind the vast difference in class between the teams. What they saw was an exhibition of power, relentless and focussed, with some refereeing howlers offering comic relief.
East Bengal were all over the rival half soon after the start. Bhutia made his intentions clear by attempting a back-volley in the second minute that went wide. They all looked hungry and eager to get an early goal, which would ease the pressure.
Mike Okoro, the mastermind behind most of East Bengal’s incisive moves, came to his own after his team had taken a few more close looks at the goal. It was a lob, from near the centre-circle, that Alvito D’Cunha chased down near the left corner-flag. He caressed it across just outside the six-yard box, and Bhutia burst through his markers to stab in a low left-footer.
This should have opened the floodgates, but didn’t. Subhashish Roy Chowdhury’s header off D’Cunha’s corner hit the bar, Douglas’ lob from almost 40 yards was blocked on the goalline, while Okoro, Bhutia and Cristiano Junior all failed to hit the target despite coming close. To add to it, referee Banari Nungram of Meghalaya disallowed a clear penalty seconds from the breather when Okoro was felled inside the box.
Things were not as good for East Bengal in the early part of the second half. D’Cunha strained a hamstring, the sting in their attack went missing and Indian Bank started probing upfront, looking for an anti-climactic equaliser. The normally compact East Bengal midfield suddenly started showing loopholes and the visitors reached their penalty box a few times.
Bhowmick made a masterly tactical move at this juncture. Off came Junior, his most consistent striker who had suffered a cut above the right eye in the first half, and in came Chandan Das to plug the midfield holes. Junior left for home straightaway, but the move clicked.
East Bengal regained momentum and the flow of attacks resumed, mainly down the right. Douglas was looking increasingly keen to get the insurance goal and off successive corner-kicks from the right saw his headers being parried from the goalline.
His wait ended when another overpowering move down the left saw Bhutia release Shylo Malsawmtluanga on the right. In came a high, curling cross and making every centimetre of his six-plus frame count, Douglas leapt above his challengers to plant an immaculate header wide to the left of a diving goalkeeper.
The second goal seemed to have taken the killer instinct off East Bengal. They started rotating the ball within themselves. The air was already filled with aabir and smoke emanating from the crackers and as if to add colour to the atmosphere, the home team decided to get a third.
They owed it to the referee this time as the man in black, skinhead like Pierluigi Colina, conveniently overlooked Bijen Singh whipping a cross in after the ball had crossed the line. Dipankar Roy gleefully received the ball with his left foot, which helped him deceive one defender, and sent it home with a neat right-footer from close.
Players of both teams vented their ire on the referee quite a few times towards the end and a couple of bookings was all they got as punishment. The fans, however, were not complaining in the end.
East Bengal: Sangram Mukherjee; Debjit Ghosh, Dipak Mondal, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury; Shylo Malsawmtluanga, Sasthi Duley, Douglas da Silva, Alvito D’Cunha (Dipankar Roy, 51), Mike Okoro (Bijen Singh, 81); Cristiano Junior (Chandan Das, 61), Bhaichung Bhutia.
Indian Bank: Felix Edward; Ananda Vasan, Rajesh Kumar Pandey, Anthony Noel, A.V. Villy (M. Sudeesh, 87); Mahendra Mani, D. Ravanan, Mohammed Bin Hassan (Amjad Hussain, 30), Ravi Babu (K.G. Joseph, 64); K. Aseem, Sabir Pasha.
Referee: Banari Nungram (Meghalaya).