Gokulam Kerala FC and Mohammedan Sporting are aiming for a first in the I-League final.

At Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday, the defending champions can keep the trophy or have history written in black and white. A football stadium will come to life for the second time in as many weeks when teams from Bengal and Kerala compete for a reward beneath the lights.

Bengal’s first attempt didn’t go well since they lost their composure throughout the shootout, but Kerala maintained it to win the Santosh Trophy in Manjeri. On Saturday at Salt Lake Stadium, there won’t be any tiebreakers, but at the end of extra time, either Mohammedan Sporting or Gokulam Kerala FC (GKFC) will have written an I-League first.

If GKFC were to retain the championship — which they can achieve with a draw — they would be the first to do it in the competition’s 15-year history. If Mohammedan Sporting wins the first all-India league, 25 years after it took over from centuries-old invitational tournaments as the standard for excellence, history will otherwise be recorded in black and white. In that time, East Bengal (2002-03; 2003-04) and Mohun Bagan (1997-98) both won National Football League championships at home. Will Mohammedan Sporting be able to accomplish that in the league that replaced the NFL in 2007? The fact that the 131-year-old Mohammedan Sporting have typically lost basement matches gives you an idea of how extraordinary that would be.

The I-League isn’t what it once was because the ISL received more attention in 2019–20, but Mohammedan Sporting is the first team to play in the top tier for two straight years. Mohammedan Sporting finished sixth after returning after seven seasons and finding a new investor. They formed a group in June, became close in a hotel, and started working out with Russian coach Andrey Chernyshov this season.

The former defender, who holds a UEFA professional licence

played for a time at Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Moscow, and Rubin Kazan. He has also coached the Russian under-21 team. The club’s football secretary, Dipendu Biswas, a former international striker, claimed he couldn’t recall a time when they hadn’t fired a coach in the middle of the campaign. He stated that they intended to retain the phlegmatic Chernyshov for an additional two seasons. After finishing as runners-up in the Durand Cup, Mohammedan Sporting won the Kolkata league under Chernyshov for the first time since 1981. Regarding the Durand Cup defeat to FC Goa, he remarked, “Back then, the players and I didn’t know each other very well.”

“We established a team gradually,” he remarked. They are the second Kolkata team, after Mohun Bagan, to win the I-League, and they still have 90 minutes to go. 37,000 spectators, the maximum number of free tickets they were permitted to give out at Covid-19, were there. Demand has outstripped availability, if the line that formed in front of the club on Thursday is any indicator.

This is not how it was intended to be. With new players, many of whom were from the reserve squad, GKFC was able to extend its I-League-record unbeaten streak, which had started in March 2021, to 21 games. In the 17th and final round, which would have been in Naihati, about 45 kilometres distant, they were just one point from winning the match. They failed, falling to Sreenidi Deccan 1-3. Vincenzo Alberto Annese, the head coach of GKFC, said on Friday, “We focused too much on the referee.” The disallowed goal and Tuesday’s GKFC roster reduction were both mentioned by the Italian. Afghanistan’s Sharif Mukhammad, the captain of GKFC, will miss the game on Saturday after receiving a red card during the second half.

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