Underdog League Champions: When Karim Bencharifa's Salgaocar rose like a phoenix to win I-League 2010-11

Karim Bencharifa Salgaocar
GOAL recounts Salgaocar's sensational I-League win under the leadership of Karim Bencharifa...

Karim Bencharifa was a man on a mission when he took over the reins of Salgaocar SC midway through the I-League 2009-10 season. 

The Goan club was reeling in the relegation zone at that point and coach Tim Hankinson was just sacked. Bencharifa's job was to ensure that it stayed afloat in the top tier.

The Moroccan also had a point to prove to his former employers Mohun Bagan. Previously, under his tutelage, the Mariners had trounced East Bengal 5-3 and had won three trophies, including the Calcutta Football League (CFL) and the Federation Cup. But the achievements were soon forgotten and a few disappointing results were enough for the trigger-happy Kolkata giants to unceremoniously show him the door. 

At the end of that campaign, the Greens had not only saved relegation they finished sixth on the table with 33 points, just a step behind Bagan. Only league champions Dempo had picked up more points than them in the second phase of the competition. 

Bencharifa continued his association with Salgaocar and masterminded a blueprint to achieve success in the next edition of I-League by making the right moves in the transfer market. 

Yusif Yakubu and Singam Subhash Singh were snatched from East Bengal, whereas, Japanese midfielder Ryuji Sueoka also reunited with his former coach under whom he had an excellent first season at Bagan. Another notable addition was Karanjit Singh under the sticks from JCT. 

He also promoted four players from the developmental squad including Gilbert Oliviera who would go on to play an important role in midfield. 

Salgaocar SC

Salgaocar started the campaign with flying colours and comfortably won their first four matches. In their inaugural match, they blew away Chirag Kerala 3-0 and then went on to thrash Indian Arrows 5-0 in their fourth outing. Sueoka was in fine form along with Yakubu and their partnership in the attacking third was working like a charm.  

But successive defeats to East Bengal and Pune FC handed them a reality check. In Kolkata, they were comprehensively outplayed and around the hour mark, Tolgay Ozbey found the net to seal the three points. 

Their next fixture against Hindusthan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) provided them with a much-needed breather. Luciano Sabrosa scored the only goal of the match to bring them back on winning track before taking on Churchill Brothers in a local derby. 

It was an electrifying first-half at the Fatorda Stadium with six goals scored between the two teams. Kayne Vincent put Churchill ahead but Sabrosa equalised soon after. The scorers were again disturbed when Durga Boro restored the lead for Churchill but three goals in quick succession from Salgaocar ensured that the hosts would leave the ground with three points in their kitty. 

But a shock 3-1 defeat to Mohun Bagan at home once again raised questions on Bencharifa's methods. They were 3-0 down in the first 25 minutes as a flamboyant Edeh Chidi toyed with Salgaocar's defence. 

The turning point of the season came in the next match against Dempo SC. Bencharifa's men started on the backfoot and even conceded as early as the fourth minute. But after falling behind, the team changed their dynamics with Sueoka starting to play in a more advanced role than his usual position. This tweak helped them get back in the match and they scored thrice with the Japanese scoring two of them. 

There were no looking back after the thumping win and they strung together a nine-match unbeaten run.

Ryuji Suoeka

But matters were still complicated as East Bengal were in a rich vein of form as well. In the penultimate round, the two teams fighting for the title locked horns in what was a crucial clash.

Within the first 20 minutes, East Bengal went 2-0 ahead with Ozbey and Baljit Sahni getting their names on the scoresheet. Bencharifa responded by making two changes. He took out Jaspal Parmar and Keenan Almeida. 

"It was necessary to take them out. Tolgay was wreaking havoc on the left and I needed to stop him. At half time I told my players, that we must take the match to them. We started pressurising them in their own half and the match ended in our favour 3-2," reminisced the 52-year old. 

In the last match, they beat JCT 2-0 in a tricky away fixture to lift the I-League title with 56 points. 

The squad had the perfect blend of youth and experience. Players like Oliveira, Anthony Barbosa, Cajetan Fernandes, and Francis Fernandes contributed significantly to the success by working shoulder-to-shoulder with the big guns like Sueoka and Yakubu. 

Bencharifa's teams are known for their free-flowing attack and in this season they scored a whopping 58 goals. They also kept things tight at the back and under the leadership of Sabrosa, they managed to keep 11 clean sheets. They were undoubtedly the deserving champions of that season.

 

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