Mahindra strikes

The triumphant Mahindra United team.-S. PATRONOBISH

Mahindra United created history, becoming the first outstation team to retain the IFA Shield, one of the world’s oldest surviving football tournaments. Amitabha Das Sharma reports.

Mahindra United would find the oft-quoted title of the Shakespearean play, ‘All’s well that ends well’, handy if it were to describe its latest success in West Bengal. It created history, becoming the first outstation team to retain the IFA Shield, one of the world’s oldest surviving football tournaments.

The mega-budget Mumbai giant strove without much success all through the season (2007-2008) before hitting tremendous form at the end of the journey. The belated timing notwithstanding, it won many hearts by bringing together a combination of fitness, flair and some great finishing. South Africa’s Santos FC got a good taste of Mahindra United’s proficiency, losing the final 3-1.

The 113th edition of the tournament saw another first as the final outside Kolkata — nerve-centre of Bengal football. Barasat, the district headquarters of North 24 Parganas District, situated some 40 kms from the state capital, played the host to the greater part of the tournament after the regular venue — Salt Lake Stadium — vetoed football, giving preference to a bookfair.

It was a tough call for the organisers once the usual venue (which staged only four matches in the group league phase) was ruled out for the decisive stages. The Vidyasagar Stadium at Barasat, replete with new floodlights, a well tended turf and a passionate crowd to boot, presented itself as a good alternative.

A mid-table finish in the I-League and losses in the Federation Cup and Durand Cup finals made it vital for Mahindra United to finish the season with a big title. And the IFA Shield came as the last hope for Derrick Pereira, the Mahindra coach. The tournament — getting a limited lease in the national calendar — presented a restricted field with seven teams contesting. Apart from Mahindra there was the I-League runner-up Churchill Brothers and three Kolkata sides — Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. What added spice to the tournament was the participation of two foreign outfits — Santos FC and the Bangladesh side Dhaka Mohammedan Sporting.

A tense moment from the Mohun Bagan-Santos semifinal.-PTI

In the initial phase, the seven teams were divided into a group league format with Mahindra, Santos and East Bengal in Group A and the rest four in Group B. This was followed by the knockout semifinals featuring the two best sides from each group.

East Bengal, a former champion, faced the axe in Group A, losing 2-0 against Mahindra and managing to hold Santos 1-1. The South African side, which downed Mahindra 2-0, remained unbeaten to top the group with four points. Mahindra (three points), being the runner-up, got a semifinal clash against Churchill Brothers, which was the Group B leader. Mohun Bagan, making a bad start with a 1-0 loss against Churchill, improved later to notch convincing wins against the two Mohammedan Sportings to claim the last semifinal berth. With its Brazilian striker Jose Barreto scoring a hat-trick, Mohun Bagan beat the Kolkata Mohammedan Sporting 3-0. Indian captain Baichung Bhutia (two goals) shone against the Dhaka side, as Bagan won 3-1 to ensure the group runner-up position.

The tiebreaker had to be enforced in the very first semifinals. Capping a generally mediocre performance, Churchill Brothers and Mahindra United remained locked 1-1 after 90 minutes of regulation time and 30 minutes of extra-time. The Mahindra players got all their shots right in the tie-breaker, while Churchill fell one short when its defender Govin Singh sent his attempt into the upright. The Mumbai side tallied 5-3 in the tiebreaker, for a final tally of 6-4 (the regulation time goals included).

Mohun Bagan discovered to its discomfiture the power of youth, which was the strength Santos FC used to floor the famed Kolkata giant 4-2. The second semifinal, highlighting speed and aggression, saw the Cape Town team running riot against the home side, which was fairly older in the age quotient. Mohun Bagan, despite being equal on the skill front, made the tactical error of trying to outgun its opponent with pace. The ploy of going all out proved costly, as Mohun Bagan could not tackle the quick counter-attacks of Santos, which mostly employed under-20 players.

Mohun Bagan, after a few abortive attempts, was down 0-2 by half-time. Forwards Danny Bowers (21st minute) and Tasleem Paulse (40th) scored for Santos. While Mohun Bagan continued messing up opportunities in the second session, Santos made it 3-0 with midfielder Gregory Roelf finishing another successful counter-attack.

Bagan enjoyed a brief spell of success with Bhutia (67th minute) and Ishfaq Ahmed (81st) cutting Santos’ lead to 3-2. But the equaliser remained a far cry, as Santos made it 4-2 in the 88th minute (through substitute Jarren Moultrie). This ended Bagan’s hopes.

The title clash was all about Mahindra’s tactical maturity. After losing the league match against Santos, coach Pereira had promised to reverse the scores if his side got another chance. The final offered the opportunity and Pereira showed his acumen. It was all about reorganising the defence and the Mahindra coach did it by employing the tall Harpreet Singh as an extra man ahead of the regular defence line-up. With Singh effectively acting as the spoiler, the Cape Town visitors soon found their attacks running aground.

On the other hand, Mahindra wrested the initiative with its Ghana-Ivory Coast attack combination of Yusif Yakubu and Douhou Pierre. Pierre, showing good timing and passing ability, did the groundwork, scripting all the three Mahindra goals. Yakubu finished the first two moves, scoring in the ninth and 15th minutes — which virtually ensured the Shield for Mahindra — before substitute Sushil Singh completed the tally in the 88th minute. Santos managed a consolation goal in the 47th minute. Mahindra had beaten Mohun Bagan in the previous edition’s (112th) final in 2006.

The Results

Final: Mahindra United 3 (Yusif Yakubu 9 & 15; Sushil Singh 88) bt Santos FC 1 (Gregory Roelf 47).

Semifinals: Mahindra 6 (1) (Manjit Singh 70) bt Churchill Brothers 4 (1) (Mboyo Iyomi 68) on penalties; Santos FC 4 (Danny Bowers 21,Tasleem Paulse 40, Gregory Roelf 60, Jarren Moultrie 88) bt Mohun Bagan 2 (Baichung Bhutia 67, Ishfaq Ahmed 81).