With the I-League title race this season going down to the wire, and with an unprecedented four teams still in contention for the crown on the last day, ESPN recollects six other title clashes that were just too close to call.
The first National Football League (NFL) was played over two stages, with the first involving 12 teams from across India, divided into two groups of six. After each team played one match each against the other, starting in December 1996, the top four from both groups went into the second stage where all eight teams would play home and away legs against each other from January 25.
Churchill Brothers of Goa were in sparkling form heading into March, the final month of the league. With 26 points from 10 games, there appeared to be no mathematical possibility of anybody catching up, least of all JCT Mills, Phagwara, who had 17 points from nine games at the same stage.
THE RUN IN
March saw massive movement on the points table, especially with Churchill Brothers, coached then by Scotsman Danny McLean, failing to lodge more than two points in their next three games, including a defeat to coach Sukhwinder Singh's JCT, who themselves won three in a row before being held to a 1-1 draw by Air India.
THE FINAL DAY
On March 16, Churchill Brothers (28 points) faced Indian Bank in Chennai, while JCT (27 points) came up against Dempo in Goa in what was one of the earliest instances of a domestic league ensuring simultaneous kick-offs on the final day.
Churchill Brothers were held to a 1-1 draw, while JCT ran out 4-1 winners. It was, to be fair, a star-studded JCT team that had India internationals IM Vijayan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Tejinder Kumar, Carlton Chapman and Bhaichung Bhutia, who top scored that season with 14 goals.
Good Morning Mariners !!
15 years ago on this day we won our 3rd National League Title ��
Joy Mohun Bagan pic.twitter.com/Nr56WMkBXQ
- Mohun Bagan A.C. (@MohunBagan) April 15, 2017
Churchill Brothers remain one of the teams with the tag of 'serial bridesmaids' in Indian football, with their five runners-up finishes in the NFL/I-League; the finish in 2002 was the third time they were pipped at the post.
Churchill Brothers then were coached by TK Chathunni, who had also been in charge of Mohun Bagan when they bounced back from the disappointment of the first NFL to win the second season in 1998. Chathunni had at his disposal a marksman at the top of his game in Ghanaian Yusif Yakubu, and he was well supported by talented local Goan players such as midfielders Roque Barreto, Noel Wilson and centre-back Mahesh Gawli.
Bagan too had a quality team back then, coached by former India defender Subrata Bhattacharya, and one that revolved around talismanic striker Jose Ramirez Barreto. He also had good Indian players like defender Dulal Biswas, midfielders Basudeb Mondal, Renedy Singh, James Singh and striker RC Prakash.
THE RUN IN
It was a virtual dead heat between the two clubs, with Bagan beating Churchill 2-1 in Kolkata along the way. In fact, the entire season saw teams from Kolkata and Goa dominate both at home and away, with Vasco beating Mohun Bagan at home and beating both East Bengal and Tollygunge Agragami away in a season where their Goan players complemented foreign striker Rui Wanderley Weis perfectly.
THE FINAL DAY
Churchill Brothers were on 42 points and Bagan on 41 heading into the final day on April 15. And their final match was against each other, with the Goans seeking revenge for a 2-1 scoreline in Kolkata earlier in the year.
There was also an outside chance Vasco, on 40 points, but facing a tough away game to JCT the same day.
It was a stormy encounter, with Churchill reduced to ten men after Gawli was sent off for handling the ball. Bagan found an unlikely hero in Nigerian defender Abdul Wastu Saliu, a pre-season signing from Bangladesh, as his 73rd minute goal proved to be the difference, giving Bagan their third NFL title and breaking the hearts of Churchill Brothers fans for a third time in six years of the league. However, Churchill did finish ahead of Vasco, and their striker Yakubu was top scorer for the season with 18 goals.
The 2005 NFL came to an exciting finish on May 21, with three teams involved in matches across three venues, and each with a chance of winning the league, two of them looking for their first title.
THE RUN IN
Sporting Clube de Goa, one of the newest teams on the block, were spurred on by Nigerian Dudu Omagbemi, having scored 21 of the 45 goals scored by the team in 21 matches leading up to their final game in Margao against Mahindra United.
They were on 45 points going into the final round, and trailing them by one point going into the last round, fellow-Goans Dempo were hosting Kolkata's Tollygunge Agragami, who had little to play for after their relegation was guaranteed. East Bengal were a further point behind Dempo, and they faced another relegated team in Goa's Vasco, as they played in Siliguri's Kanchenjunga Stadium, but missed the services of key Indian players Bhaichung Bhutia and midfielder Alvito D'Cunha.
East Bengal, under coach Subhas Bhowmick, were looking to extend their run of successive title wins to three, with many of the squad having also tasted success at the 2003 ASEAN Club Championship as an invitational team.
THE FINAL DAY
The sequence of events couldn't have been more dramatic as the three venues kicked off simultaneously. Mahindra's lead in the 40th minute was cancelled out by Sporting, while Dempo remained scoreless at half-time.
In Siliguri, Vasco, a team whose four wins in 21 matches had included away wins over the other two teams from Kolkata, Mohun Bagan and Tollygunge, shot to a 2-0 lead, before East Bengal pulled one back.
Sporting collapsed, while Dempo soared in the last quarter of their matches. Dempo had goals from RC Prakash and all-time top goal-getter in Indian league football Ranti Martins to thank for a 2-0 win, while Sporting went down 3-1 after conceding twice in the last ten minutes.
East Bengal's hopes were extinguished by a third Vasco goal midway into the second half, and Goa finally had their second national champions after Salgaocar, with Dempo adding to their Federation Cup triumph in December 2004 on their way to becoming the most successful Indian team in the national league.
The NFL was rebranded the I-League in 2007, and defending champions Dempo set the pace with a good run of form in the early stages of the league. Churchill Brothers, a team coached by Moroccan Karim Bencherifa, were impressive as well, especially their two strikers, Odafe Okolie of Nigeria and Mboyo Iyomi of Congo, who were every bit as prolific as the Nigerian strike duo of Dempo, Ranti Martins and Chidi Edeh.
Nothing typified the intensity of the league better than when Dempo hosted Churchill Brothers in Margao on January 10 during the league. Churchill Brothers had ended 2007 on the last day with a 5-1 demolition of Salgaocar at the same venue -- Odafe scoring four -- and Dempo had responded four days later with four separate scorers in a 4-0 win over Viva Kerala, again in Margao. When the two teams collided, Dempo scored their first only in the 44th minute, but ran out 4-1 winners, completing the season double after having won the return fixture in December by a 2-0 margin.
THE FINAL DAY
The equation on the final day of the league was simple, with both teams tied on 33 points and involved in simultaneous kick-offs on February 23. Dempo had a goal difference of 19 to Churchill's 15, though Churchill had scored 37 goals to Dempo's 31.
Dempo's away game in Kozhikode was tougher on paper, though opponents Viva Kerala were already relegated and had little but pride to play for.
Churchill Brothers were hosting Air India, and at the stroke of half-time, they led 1-0 while Dempo had their early 2-0 lead cut down by a Viva Kerala goal. Churchill Brothers knew, when they came out for the second half, that they needed to win by six clear goals to put pressure back on Dempo, and in spite of an Odafe brace, the best they could manage was 3-0.
Dempo got late goals from Ranti and midfielder Beto, the two of whom used to provide a formidable spine to the team coached by Armando Colaco.
In the end, both teams ended on 36 points, but Dempo's goal difference of 22 stayed four better than Churchill Brothers' 18, even though Odafe and Mboyo scored a combined total of 34 goals, one less than the champions. Dempo became the second team after East Bengal to successfully defend the national crown, a record that has stood since, while Churchill Brothers had to wait for another year before winning their first title.
The 2014-15 I-League began with a few teams showing good form in the first month, including Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and debutants Royal Wahingdoh of Shillong, whose style of attacking play under Santosh Kashyap took the league by storm.
Defending champions Bengaluru FC began sluggishly, possibly yet to come down from the high of their first Federation Cup win, though they had the most well-rested roster of players overall, having refused to release any players for the inaugural Indian Super League (ISL) season that finished in December 2014.
As the league rolled along, it increasingly became a four-horse race, with Sanjoy Sen's Mohun Bagan pulling away from Bengaluru, Royal Wahingdoh and East Bengal, emphasising their quality in a 4-1 home win over Ashley Westwood's Bengaluru in February.
May saw the Kolkata team begin to slip up within sight of the finish line, losing key matches away to Bharat FC of Pune and Sporting Clube de Goa, and also being held to a draw by Khalid Jamil's Mumbai FC at the Cooperage.
Bengaluru, meanwhile, balanced their league commitments with their AFC Cup debut well. Heading into the final day in Bengaluru on May 31 - and a showdown with Mohun Bagan - the equation was pretty clear.
THE FINAL DAY
Hosts Bengaluru FC were on 36 points to Mohun Bagan's 38. Westwood took a gamble by leaving striker Sunil Chhetri on the bench, and it appeared to be working out when centre-back John Johnson scored from a corner late in the first half. This spurred Bagan into action, and they came closest to equalising on the stroke of half-time, but for a goalline clearance by Johnson.
Bagan fans at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium had given up hope and some were filing out around the 87th minute, when the visitors won a corner and Nigerian defender Bello Rasaq was able to score a rare goal from the set piece. It was one worth the wait -- Bagan had retained the national title after a gap of 13 years, and the league was back in Kolkata for the first time since East Bengal's win in 2004.
Aizawl FC, initially relegated after the previous season, were reinstated among the 10 teams in the I-League due to the pull-out of a number of Goan teams. Despite roping in Mumbai FC coach Khalid Jamil at the start of the season, they weren't deemed to be favourites, with traditional powerhouses Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and AFC Cup runners-up and champions Bengaluru FC expected to challenge for the title.
Aizawl made their home ground a virtual bastion, winning eight of nine games they played there in the run-up to a dramatic final day. Mohun Bagan kept pace with them all the way through, while Bengaluru paid for a winless run starting with their first match on the road against East Bengal. With head-to-head and head-to-head goal difference being the first two differentiators in case teams were tied on points, Mohun Bagan held the edge there over Aizawl, having won 3-2 at home and lost 1-0 in Aizawl in the penultimate game for both clubs.
THE FINAL DAY
On the final day, Mohun Bagan played Chennai City at home needing a win, while Aizawl travelled to Shillong Lajong three points clear at the top, needing just a draw to clinch the first national league title for a north-eastern team.
Bagan trailed early, but were buoyed by news of Lajong taking an early lead. The home side in Kolkata equalised at the stroke of half-time, knowing they needed just one more goal and for the score to stay the same in Shillong for them to win. It was not to be though, as Aizawl scored an equaliser midway through the second half, and then survived a tense finish to emerge with a point that won Jamil his first title as coach. Bagan would win 2-1, but their players slumped to their knees when they learnt of the result in Shillong.
* First published on April 18, 2017