May 1, 2001

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Solid defence gave East Bengal
the title

S Ayyappa Swamy

No heartbreaks and no shocks. East Bengal, as has been their wont this fifth National Football League, played a percentage game against minnows-but-tigers-at-home State Bank of Travancore on Monday to lift their first League title.

Coupled with Mohun Bagan's second place finish, following a similar 2-0 victory over Indian Telephone Industries, it meant a 1-2 for the Calcutta maidan.

In the second NFL, Mohun Bagan had won the title and East Bengal finished second. This time, however, the positions have been reversed. And United Breweries Group, the sponsors of both the Calcutta giants, are glad that their teams bagged the top positions.

Barring last year, when they finished seventh, East Bengal have always had a top three finish. And it was indeed time that they won the NFL, for victory for Mohun Bagan would have meant too much of domination by the maroon and green brigade. Bagan have already won the title twice in the last five years and that would take some beating.

East Bengal had the extra motivation to go for victory, which they had to ensure at any cost. And that was to honour the memory of their departed secretary Dipak 'Paltu' Das, who passed away recently.

Indeed, coach Manoranjan Bhattacharya is not known as a great motivator and is a man of few words.

"The players were keen that they do something for the memory of Paltuda," said Bhattacharya in Thiruvananthapuram. "And they did it, in splendid style too, I would say."

Apart from the home advantage, SBT had another thing going for them -- the unseasonal rains which lashed the Kerala capital. But East Bengal's Nigerian powerhouse Omolaja Olalekan got both the goals much to the delight of his team mates and the partisan crowd at Thiruvananthapuram.

Bhattacharya's Mohun Bagan counterpart Subroto Battacharya ensured that at least he got his part of the script right when the Calcutta giants bested IndianTelephone Industries. Their Brazilian wizard Jose Barretto did not score any goals but set up two for his teammates. Not only did he score 14 goals (to equal Bhaichung Bhutia's record in the first year), but he also played the provider for R C Prakash and Co.

Where did Mohun Bagan lose out? Probably dropping points in the drawn encounter against East Bengal. For they won their next three matches, whereas East Bengal drew two and won two of their last four matches. The red and golden brigade always had their noses slightly ahead of Mohun Bagan. And that is what mattered most.

What won the title for East Bengal is their defence. They scored only 30 goals, but conceded a paltry nine. On the other hand, Mohun Bagan scored 20 and ended with 19 against.

That in itself tells a tale.

Next year, it is the turn of Churchill Brothers to win the title, perhaps. Like East Bengal, they too have shown amazing consistency. Again, like East Bengal, they had one bad year, when they finished ninth in the second year. But they have had top three finishes in the remaining three years, emerging runner-up twice and third once. And now again they finished third after a come-from-behind win over FC Kochin in a home match.

Kochin had taken the lead through Aaron Cole, but what remains of the club -- take away Jo Paul Ancheri, I M Vijayan and five disgruntled foreigners -- couldn't match the Goa outfit. Churchill won by a splendid 3-1 margin.

Kochin are yet to break into the top three.

Viva Vasco. What a splendid achievement. The qualifiers first looked to save their skin and then slowly went about consolidating their position. And there is no gainsaying what their position would have been had they converted a few of their 12 draws into victories. A fifth position in their first year surely deserves a ticker-tape parade in Goa. Now the pressure is on them next year. And it doesn't start with their players but whether Salgaocar will release coach Derrick Pereria, who was loaned to Vasco for the league.

After finishing one position behind Vasco at sixth, Salgaocar might now be tempted to replace their own coach Marcus Pacheco of Mormugao Port Trust with Pereira.

Losing to JCT in the final match on Monday at Ludhiana could raise a needle of suspicion on the match being fixed. But so astonishing has been Salgaocar's run in the second leg (they got just seven points from 11 matches, with 2 wins, 1 draw and eight losses including the last four in a row) that JCT's victory comes as no surprise. Moreso, because the northern outfit enjoyed a wonderful run in the return leg with 18 points in 11 matches (4 wins, 6 draws, 1 defeat). From five points, JCT jumped to 23 and saved relegation by the skin of their teeth.

Finishing above JCT were Mahindra United and Tollygunge Aggragami, who played out such an insipid 1-1 draw that it looked neither side were keen to sign off with a victory. Mahindra had a good chance of finishing fifth and the results on the final day certainly worked in their favour. Mahindra have to do a lot of soul-searching for their lost chances this season.

It was a contrasting day for Air-india and Indian Telephone Industries. The airmen, making a comeback to the premier division, scored a superbly crafted 2-1 win over Vasco. Yet they could not rejoice for they were doomed to Division II again. In comparison, ITI, who lost 0-2 to Mohun Bagan, could still get off the field with a smile as their 22 points they gained meant they would remain in the NFL in the sixth season.

Highlights of the concluding round:

Best goal: Emeka Achilefu for Tollygunge against Mahindra United.
Best match: Air-India beating Vasco in the last match.
Disappointment: Mahindra-tollygunge in a 1-1 draw in Bombay.
Great Escape: JCT defeating Salgaocar to avoid relegation.

Results of the 22nd round:
SBT lost to East Bengal 0-2, in Thiruvananthapuram
Churchill Brothers beat F C Kochin 3-1, in Goa
JCT lost to Salgaocar 0-2, in Ludhiana
Mahindra United drew with Tollygunge Aggragami 1-1, in Bombay
ITI lost to Mohun Bagan 0-2, in Bangalore
Air-India beat Vasco 2-1, in Bombay

Top Scorers:
14 - Jose Ramirez Barretto (Mohun Bagan)
12 -- Igor Shkvrin (Churchill Bros)
11 - R C Prakash (Mohun Bagan),
8 - Hardeep Gill (JCT) and Omolaja Olalekan (East Bengal)
7 - Francis Silveira (Churchill Bros.), T. Asif Saheer (SBT), Sunday Seah (FC Kochin), Aaron Cole (FC Kochin), Bruno Coutinho (Salgaocar), Abdul latheef Seriki (Tollygunge Aggragami)
6 - Anthony Fernandes (Air-India)
5 - Abdul Hakim (SBT), Bungo Singh (Air-India), Jo Paul Ancheri (FC Kochin), Dipendu Biswas (East Bengal). Kenneth Ogwa (ITI).
4 - Awazbek Kashimov (Vasco), T. Shabbir Ali (SBT), Raman Vijayan (Mahindra United), Climax Lawrence (Salgaocar), Suley Musah (East Bengal), emeka Achilefu (Tollygunge aggragami).

Related reports you may want to read:

FC Kochin lead National Football League race
F C Kochin stay ahead
Salgaocar close in on early leaders
Mohun Bagan well-placed after five rounds
Air India, Mahindra in a spot - Summary of Round 6
East Bengal high in the saddle - Summary of Round 7
East Bengal on top for second week - Summary of Round 8
Three in close race - Summary of Round 9
Prakash's hat-trick high point of Round 10
Bungo Singh, R C Prakash steal the limelight
F C Kochin stay unbeaten, but just about
Upsets aplenty in Round 13 of NFL
ITI win 14th round honours
East Bengal widen lead at the top
Mahindra United made the best of disjointed FC Kochin
East Bengal stay on course for title
Bagan, E Bengal set for close finish
East Bengal, Bagan in neck and neck race
NFL set for nail-biting finish

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