A goal somehow and let the celebrations begin! That is what the 17,000 at Kalyani Stadium here wanted. It didn’t come easy.
Aizawl FC put Mohun Bagan through the wringer, having the better of exchanges and locking them down with smart defensive organisation. Till Joseba Beitia’s give-go with Nongdamba Naorem after which his outstep found Babacar Diawara who fired into the bottom corner.
The stadium shook after the 80th minute goal executed by three players whose influence have been crucial in Mohun Bagan winning the 2019-20 I-League with four rounds to spare. Like Dempo, Mohun Bagan have been India champions five times since the National League began in 1996-97.
No edition has been this one-sided since Dempo’s title win in 2009-10. On four occasions including 2014-15 when Mohun Bagan were champions, the first two teams were separated by less than three points. The time hasn’t come to measure that this term but don’t blame Mohun Bagan, on an unassailable 39 points after 16 rounds, if they don’t care.
So, to the tune of Dwayne Bravo’s ‘Champion’, Daniel Cyrus, the Trinidad and Tobago international and Mohun Bagan central defender, swayed and the full house clapped.
“Football and life is about emotions and to be able to play a part in making so many people happy is a very good situation to be in,” said Mohun Bagan’s Spanish coach Kibu Vicuna, his face streaked with green powder, one day after the festival of colours here, and with his name reverberating around the stadium.
Mohun Bagan and Aizawl FC, champions in 2016-17, were locked in a 0-0 draw in the opening match on November 30. Next match, at home, when Mohun Bagan lost 2-4 to Churchill Brothers an ending like this would have been difficult to believe.
That game against Churchill Brothers turned out to be Mohun Bagan’s only loss. They embarked on a four-game winning run after that and improved that to seven successive victories beginning with the win that matters almost as this title — against East Bengal on January 19. Mohun Bagan have won eight of the nine game since.
The staggering statistics don’t end there. Mohun Bagan have won 12 of their 16 rounds. The next best is six. On way to the title since 2014-15 only Chennai City FC have won as many — in 2018-19.
“I had said at my first press conference that this team needs time. I was very happy with how the players trained at the beginning and now we are getting the results,” said Vicuna, 48.
Appointed last May Vicuna, who was on the staff of Legia Warsaw and Osasuna’s youth set-up, reached here on June 27 and got down to work with a team that had retained only eight players. Crucially, Mohun Bagan had sorted out the bulk of their foreign players by July. They looked like a work in progress in the Calcutta League, were runners-up in the Durand Cup and eliminated in the semi-final of the Sheikh Kamal International Club Cup in Bangladesh.
Then, the I-League started with one point from two games. Mohun Bagan beat TRAU 4-0 in their third match and followed that with a 2-1 win against Gokulam Kerala FC. The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place.
“Except the first two games, Mohun Bagan were the most consistent team of the league. Credit to their coach for the transformation and, of course, they had quality players. Diawara made all the difference,” said Aizawl FC coach Stanly Rozario.
Diawara, 32, got 10 goals scoring in each of the last nine games having joined in January. “Never had such a successful run of goals. I dedicate this to the fans and to my three daughters,” said the player from Senegal who played three years and 30 games for Sevilla (2012-15). It took Diawara three games since starting against Real Kashmir away on January 5 to get off the mark. He hasn’t stopped since and with 10 goals in 12 games is joint-second in the race for the golden boot.
Another player on an unstoppable run is Beitia, Mohun Bagan’s No. 10. This was his ninth assist in the competition. No one has that many.
“This team worked well. The dressing room was very nice and that is why are performing this well,” said Diawara. Crucial to keeping it that way was Spaniard Fran Gonzalez, the team’s leader on the pitch even if he didn’t wear the armband.
Gonzales didn’t stand out on the pitch because of his Mohawk hair-do but because he could marshal the defence and also score 10 goals. He even writes his name in Bengali on his Twitter handle.