After putting three past Ukraine, Gennaro Gattuso was asked how Italy would deal with playing the 2006 World Cup semi-final against hosts Germany. Looking straight at the questioner, Gattuso had said it wouldn’t matter whether they were playing at Dortmund or anywhere else. Italy walked Gattuso’s talk by taking charge of the semi-final at Westfalenstadion.
Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) too showed it didn’t matter that the Salt Lake stadium was an intimidating cauldron on Saturday. They needed a draw to keep the I-League, the first time any team had ever done that. The occasion warranted IM Vijayan in a GKFC maroon and Binoo George, Kerala’s Santosh Trophy winning coach, fetching up. In search of a first I-League, Mohammedan Sporting too had got former India captain and star striker Shabbir Ali over.
In the end it was GKFC who made history with a 2-1 win showing that their 2019 Durand Cup triumph here beating East Bengal and Mohun Bagan was no fluke.
After a quiet first half, Luka Majcen produced two assists which were put away by Rishad and Emil Benny on either side of an Azharuddin Mallick strike.
GKFC’s bid to draw Mohammedan Sporting in and hit on the break almost worked when goalkeeper Zothanmawia was in no man’s land after a high ball found Jourdain Fletcher. You could hear the sound of silence as 47,136 held their breath but from nearly 30 yards out, the Jamaican frontman couldn’t keep his lob on target. “Bad judgment from the goalkeeper almost killed the game,” said India head coach Igor Stimac in a television interview at half-time.
GKFC thought they had done that in the 49th minute when Majcen found Rishad as Mohammedan Sporting began the second half like they ended the first, by pushing up. In space as Mohammedan Sporting left back Manoj Mohammad had moved up, Rishad finished with a cool placement. Cue, hugs and bounce in the GKFC technical area.
In a competition where late twists to the plot is the norm–six of the last eight seasons have been decided on the last day, often with more than two teams in contention–it would have felt like an aberration had that been the only goal of the night. Mohammedan Sporting made a double substitution in the 54th minute and one of them, Azharuddin Mallick, equalised in the 56th when a Marcus Joseph free-kick completely changed direction after banging into him. GKFC appealed for handball, Joseph looked calm, the stadium shook.
Things can change in a minute in football, Mohammedan Sporting coach Andrey Chernyshov had said. So it did when Majcen again found in space Emil Benny, who had played such an important role in GKFC’s maiden title triumph. Similar assist, similar goal. More hugs and bouncing in a sliver of the stadium.
Nikola Stojanovic exhorted the crowd to get behind the home team and they had responded with a roar. A tifo strung from the upper tier at Salt Lake stadium celebrated Bengal’s love for football with a line from a Manna Dey Bangla song that says there is no sport like it. Huge black and white flags slung from the middle tier abutted the Tricolour and an East Bengal flag. This was not just about a club; it was Kolkata rallying behind its team.
But all this led to a nervy start during which Alex Saji dragged Mohammad with him before putting in a cross which Wayne Vaz had to stretch a leg to clear. Mohammedan Sporting did take control but with Joseph’s runs not meeting deliveries, they didn’t have much to show for all the possession.
Benny’s goal meant the home team had to score two more. Substitute Phrangki Buam shinning a Mallick hook back, Joseph being unable to direct a Faisal Ali cross and Buam’s shot deflecting off a GKFC player were the closest they came to doing that. Goalie Rakshit Dagar made two brave saves and central defender Bouba Aminou led from the back to deny Mohammedan Sporting oxygen in the final third.
GKFC had lost on Tuesday for the first time in 22 I-League games and in over a year. They are too good to lose two in a row.