For Salgaocar the long wait is over. After 14 years they lifted the Federation Cup, at the same venue — the Salt Lake Stadium — and against East Bengal, the opponents they beat in 1997. Only the score line (3-1) was marginally better. In 1997, Bruno Coutinho’s golden goal silenced the East Bengal fans and enabled Salgaocar to win 2-1.
It is also after seven years that a team from Goa won the premier knock-out competition of India. Way back in 2004, Dempo (Goa) had beaten Mohun Bagan 2-1 in the final in Bengaluru. The Kolkata clubs’ five-year reign as Federation Cup champions has ended. It is also the fourth time a Kolkata club lost a Federation Cup final held at Salt Lake. Earlier, East Bengal lost to JCT in 1995 and to Salgaocar in 1997 and Mohammedan Sporting lost to Mahindra United in 2003.
Based on performances in the recent Federation Cup, it seems likely that the Goa teams will also dominate the 5th I-League, which starts from October 22.
Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have imbalanced squads. Bagan have surplus strikers and lack flair in midfield. East Bengal have no proper striker. Both foreign recruits, Tolgay Ozbey (Australian of Turkish descent) and Alan Gow (Scottish) are lack the killer instinct and thrust of a striker. Bagan’s game is one dimensional and there is a distinct lack of speed in their squad. East Bengal’s approach play is more direct but when Mehtab Hossein is injured and unavailable they look predictable in attack and struggle against well-organised defences.
East Bengal were also jolted by the declining performances of goalkeeper Sandeep Nandy. The 36-year-old custodian, once India’s pride and joy is tentative in dealing with crosses and conceded goals to onrushing opponents, who capitalised on his failure to grip long range shots. It could be the end of an era for one of India’s great goalkeepers of the recent times. East Bengal have just two teenagers, Jayanta Pal and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as reserve goalkeepers and coach Trevor Morgan will hope that one of them matures fast.
Karim Bencherifa has become the first coach to win the I-League and Federation Cup double crown in a single calendar year. When he joined Salgaocar in 2010, the club were on the brink of relegation. He helped them survive that season and revived them effectively with some judicious transfers (Ryuji Sueoka and Karanjeet Singh) and introduction of young talented players Francis Fernandez and Gilberto Oliveira, to make them I-League winners in the next season. It is also a low-budget team (about Rs. 6.5-7 crores), half the cost of Bagan’s expensively-assembled squad.
The ability to buy players who fit into his game plan rather than expensive stars is making Karim the Arsene Wenger of Indian football. The career of Mohun Bagan discards Rahul Kumar, Biswajit Saha and Chidi Edeh (joint top-scorer of the 2011 Federation Cup) have been revived at Salgaocar. Players who were sliding into obscurity like 27 year-old right back Jaspal Parmar and 29 year old midfielder Tomba Singh, excelling is also a tribute to his man-management skills.