Mohun Bagan clinched their second I-League crown and fifth national league title with a 1-0 win against Aizawl FC in front of a packed stadium in Kalyani on Tuesday.
The hosts left it late, but Baba Diawara's strike in the 80th minute meant they secured the title with four games to spare. Bagan now have 39 points from 16 matches, and the highest tally that any of the chasing pack can reach up to is 37, with both Real Kashmir and Gokulam Kerala in with a mathematical chance of making that mark.
Despite the All India Football Federation's decision to relegate the I-League to the status of second division behind the Indian Super League (ISL), this qualifies Bagan as the Indian representatives with a guaranteed spot in the AFC Cup group stages for 2021.
Bagan, who had last won the I-League in a dramatic final day away to Bengaluru FC in 2015, have thus equaled two records of Goan club Dempo -- the most national league titles with five, and as also winning the title with the most games remaining. Dempo had won the 2009-10 I-League with four matches to spare in what was then a 26-game league, beating Mohun Bagan 4-1 in seal up the title race in April 2010.
Bagan were off colour for a large part of the contest on Tuesday, where Aizawl set themselves up to defend stoutly and hit primarily on the counter. The home side were not able to get much fluency in the first hour of play, and even conceded a couple of sharp chances for the opposition, but Aizawl's forwards were unable to capitalize on a few defensive errors.
Bagan's first major foray late in the game produced a cross from the right for Diawara, who towered above his marker, but failed to keep his header on target. Moments later, Bagan's influential playmaker Joseba Beitia created some space inside the left, and advanced towards the Aizawl box, with the defenders backing away to block any potential shot, but then laid the ball up for Diawara, who sent a powerful shot low to the right of the Aizawl goalkeeper.
This was Bagan's 12th win of the campaign, and comes as part of a 14-match unbeaten streak in the I-League, already a record for the longest such runs they've had in NFL/I-League history. The previous record before this season had been 12, matched by the club during the I-League in 2008-09 and their previous victorious campaign in 2014-15. The next record they would be aiming to break would be the all-time longest unbeaten streak in the league's history -- 17, recorded by arch-rivals East Bengal in 2002-03.
Bagan, who had failed to qualify for the Super League of the inaugural NFL, and hence missed out on their chance to win the first league title in 1996-97, won the league the following year for their first title. They won the NFL again in 1999-2000 and again in 2001-02, before ending a 13-year drought with the league win in 2015.
Next season, Mohun Bagan will be taken over by ISL club ATK and are set to compete as a combined club in the franchise-based league. With ATK also featuring in the ISL final on March 14 against Chennaiyin FC in Goa, what would be most interesting to see is what happens to the pending AFC slot for India should ATK win the ISL final as well. The ISL final winner will get an AFC Cup playoff slot, and the new club, likely to be called ATKMB, will only be eligible for one of the AFC slots. How AIFF resolves the question of where the club plays, and which team from which league gets the other slot could still make the remainder of the I-League something worth keeping track of.