Day of the underdog

Well-deserved... Salgaocar SC players and coach Karim Bencherifa (centre) celebrate after winning the Federation Cup.-PTI Well-deserved... Salgaocar SC players and coach Karim Bencherifa (centre) celebrate after winning the Federation Cup.

The significance of Salgaocar Sports Club's victory lay in the fact that it overturned the tournament favourite, East Bengal, on its home turf. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

As Karim Bencherifa, surrounded by the ecstatic players of Salgaocar Sports Club, held aloft the majestic Federation Cup, he looked like a magician completing ‘the prestige' of his trick. The coach from Morocco had pulled off another act of wizardry by helping a bunch of talented players steal the thunder from East Bengal.

The significance of Salgaocar's victory lay in the fact that it overturned the tournament favourite, East Bengal, on its home turf. The sudden silence in the stands reflected the dismay and disbelief of the partisan fans, numbering around 50,000, who had turned up for the final expecting East Bengal to complete a hat-trick of triumphs. The Goan club played a far superior game to hammer out a 3-1 victory.

Only a few months ago Bencherifa had pulled Salgaocar out of the depths of despair by guiding it to victory in the I-League. The resilience and character the team showed then was in full view again at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. And as the club emerged triumphant, the memory of its victory against East Bengal in 1997 came into focus, for it was when Salgaocar had last won the Federation Cup.

Though Bencherifa was not around in 1997 — when Shabbir Ali's boys overcame East Bengal — the ebullient Moroccan definitely gave Salgaocar and its supporters a grand feeling of deja vu. “I have an unbelievably good side. Nothing can stop us,” he said while praising his players who had cast away the tag of underdogs to win the second biggest club tournament in the country.

“All of them are great players and, more importantly, (they) are very dedicated to the team. We are like a huge family,” said Bencherifa while highlighting the most important factor that helped him win the battle of wits against another very accomplished professional — Trevor Morgan, the coach of East Bengal.

East Bengal, which had dominated the tournament, winning it successively since 2009, had all the reason to believe that it could complete a hat-trick of titles, a feat achieved only by its traditional rival Mohun Bagan. East Bengal's confidence stemmed from the fact that Morgan had built it into a formidable team that won all the tournaments it played in barring the I-League, where it was pipped by Salgaocar.

Unlike Morgan's policy of preserving the nucleus of the side, Bencherifa chose some new faces during the transfer season. But the advantage that Morgan sought to derive by retaining the majority of the squad from the previous season was cancelled out by Bencherifa's better man-management skills.

Bencherifa, who had earlier helped Mohun Bagan to win the Federation Cup in 2008 before being unceremoniously ejected by the myopic club officials, is relishing the healthy atmosphere in Goa that allows his players to play without any pressure. On the other hand, the biggest problem for Morgan and his team is in handling the tremendous expectations of the fans and the interference of the management which has become a bane of football in Kolkata.

Back in form… Edeh Chidi had a forgettable season with Mohun Bagan last year but under Bencherifa he has been brilliant. The crafty striker tormented the East Bengal defence with his skill and searing runs in the final.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

“The teams are improving by trying out different formations and changes. It is a learning process for all of us and there cannot be a constant favourite all the time,” said Morgan, trying to put things in perspective.

East Bengal had a fine assortment of talent, which included a good combination of foreigners — Nigerians Uga Okpara and Orgi Penn and Australian Tolgay Ozbey — that added to the team's strength. But the rhythm and flair that Morgan educed from the same batch of players in the previous season was absent when East Bengal started its title-defence. The first match against former champion and a qualifier this time, Mohammedan Sporting, exposed the weaknesses in East Bengal's attack as it had to overcome a one-goal deficit before forcing a draw (1-1). Even in the next two matches, the club failed to impress as it just about managed to defeat Pune FC (2-1) and Dempo SC (1-0) to emerge battle-scarred from the virtual ‘group of death' in the quarterfinal league, which was held simultaneously in Pune and Kolkata.

In the semifinals, East Bengal suffered from the breach in coordination between its midfield and forward line but managed to beat its city rival Prayag United SC 2-1 after the latter was reduced to nine men following some dubious refereeing decisions.

Salgaocar, boasting of a far better record by scoring the most number of goals — eight — while conceding none till the semifinals, relied on its attacking combination of Edeh Chidi and Elijah Junior (both Nigerians picked from Kolkata clubs) and Japanese Ryuiji Sueoka for success. Chidi, who had a forgettable season with Mohun Bagan last year, regained his brilliant form under Bencherifa. The crafty striker bothered the East Bengal defence with his skill and searing runs around the box right from the start. He opened Salgaocar's account in the fifth minute. Chidi's touch proved to be East Bengal's doom as the striker provided essential assists in helping his team to two more goals — one scored by Francis Fernandes and the other by Sueoka.

East Bengal's only goal of the match came from Alan Gow, the team's new Scottish recruit.

Salgaocar's victory meant a major milestone for Bencherifa, who became the first foreign coach to win the I-League and the Federation Cup in the same calendar year.