Invincible Punjab FC, coached by Sankarlal, beat East Bengal in final to win RFDL

Punjab FC became unbeaten champions as they came from behind to beat East Bengal 3-2 in the final on Saturday in Navi Mumbai.

Update: 2024-05-18 17:57 GMT
Punjab FC players celebrate after winning the RFDL final against East Bengal 3-2 at Reliance Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai on May 18, 2024. (Photo credit: RFSM)

Navi Mumbai: Invincible Punjab FC pipped East Bengal 3-2 in the final to clinch the third edition of the Reliance Foundation Development League (RFDL) here at the Reliance Corporate Park on Saturday.

The victory marked a remarkable end to the Sankarlal Chakraborty-coached side, who became unbeaten champions.

Since the beginning of the league in February, Punjab FC boys have shown magnificent cohesion in their attacking and defensive play. They remained unbeaten for 16 matches - 14 wins and two draws.

Heading to the final, Punjab FC scored 44 goals and conceded a mere eight. On Friday evening, they showed remarkable fighting spirit and composure in a game where luck swayed back and forth.

It was Punjab FC who took the lead in the 10th minute of the match, with Omang Dodum dazzling inside the box to grab a loose delivery and ruffled the net by sending the ball past East Bengal goalkeeper Gourab Shaw.

East Bengal fought back and equalised, with their captain Guite Vanlalpeka, the midfielder, taking the initiative to level the score in the 42nd minute - striking the ball into the net from the left.

Sankarlal's tactical move paid dividends

The Red and Gold brigade, coached by Bino George, carried the momentum to the second half and took a 2-1 lead in the 50th minute, with defender Joseph Justin scoring from a header.

But, East Bengal's jubilation did not last long. The tactical brilliance of Chakraborty, who has the experience of managing the who-is-who of Indian football, came to the team's rescue.

He brought two changes. Super subs Yendrembam Boby Singh and Harmanpreet scored in a span of 13 minutes to tilt the match in Punjab FC's favour.

In the 59th minute, Boby dribbled past East Bengal players and slotted the ball home with a magnificent flying kick to the amusement of the Punjab FC bench. The score was tied at 2-2.

As the match progressed, East Bengal's struggle became clear as they failed to get the ball into the opponents's half.

Capitalising on the opportunity, Harmanpreet, despite finding himself in a crowded East Bengal backline, sealed the victory with a sharp strike in the 72nd minute.

As East Bengal looked for an equaliser, there were moments of nerves with the players losing their cool, and the referee Shantan Agarwal had to intervene to stave off any untoward incident.

Punjab FC held onto their lead for the remaining part of the match to emerge victorious.

Asked how they made a comeback after the break, coach Sankarlal said, "I did not put my boys under any pressure after the first half. I asked them to enjoy the match. During the first half, we observed that our boys were not able to take the attack beyond the halfway mark and East Bengal were trying to press. I asked my boys to play quick and shorter passes, it worked for us." 

"It was a fiercely contested final. Usually, the result of a very competitive match comes down to the substitution that each team makes, which helps us today. Also my job as a coach to support my team tactically which I did. But the credit goes to the players, support staff and the magament of Punjab FC. They have a youth set-up and structure which is world-class and one of the best in Indian football,” added the 48-year-old, who joined the side earlier this year.

Omang, Suhail bag awards 

Striker Omang from Arunachal Pradesh won the Golden Boot award for scoring 14 goals, the most by a player in the RFDL this season. "This is the biggest win of my career. We played very well today and became champions. Also I got an award, I am happy for that. The match was tough but exciting. I hope we will do our best in the Next Gen Cup," said Omang.

Another promising player in the Punjab FC rank was Muhammad Suhail, a lanky left winger who wreaked havoc on East Bengal's defence throughout the match with his bustling pace and sharp passes. He won the Golden Ball award. "I am very happy, now I look forward to hone my skills and play in the ISL in future," said the youngster from Kerala. 

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