Mahindra United has the edge

NEW DELHI, FEB. 15. In the last two decades, the Durand Cup football tournament had witnessed the dominance of the big two from Kolkata - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. This time there has, however, been an exception. Saturday's final at the Ambedkar Stadium will pit Mumbai's Mahindra United against Goa's Churchill Brothers.

Mahindra will be looking for its second title while Churchill has made the final of Asia's oldest tournament for the the first time. Though these two sides have nothing much to boast of past, in terms of past achievements in the tournament, the way they have performed so far indicates a lively fare for the Delhi fans on Saturday. The two have met twice earlier this season and the honours have been shared, with a victory each.

It may be difficult to choose between the two sides but the fact that Mahindra has played tougher sides, in comparison to Churchill, should provide the Mumbai side with the all-important psychological edge that could matter in a contest of this sort.

Mahindra, the joint leader in the NFL along with Mohun Bagan and Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Bangalore, has scored seven goals in three matches, including a 3-0 win over ITI in the semifinal.

A balanced side, which does not rely heavily on its two Nigerian strikers, Austin Okolo and Bala Usman, Mahindra has been served well by the winger, Jules Alberto, who has scored two goals, and Raman Vijayan.

``We have really worked hard this season. We are without six players including Mohammad Najeeb and Nigerian Habib Adekunle. But we are confident of performing well tomorrow,'' said Mahindra coach Harish Rao.

Mahindra proved its form and rating with that impressive-looking margin against ITI in the semifinal. That really was a surprise, especially so since the Mumbai team put five men in its defence. Mahindra's strategy against Churchill will depend on the fitness of Khalid Jamil, an impressive performer so far who is now on the injured list.

``He (Jamil) is a doubtful starter. Our strategy will depend on his fitness. In case Jamil is not fit, we may opt for S. Venkatesh,'' said Rao.

For Churchill, the presence of Ghana's Yusif Yakubu and Amin Sayed Mousavi of Iran, has turned out to be its strength, though the lack of support from the others should be causing concern to coach T.K. Chathunni.

Manipur's Ratan Singh chipped in with two goals in the semifinal against East Bengal but the bulk of the work was done Yakubu and Mousavi on Thursday.

The other two foreigners, goalkeeper Edward Ansah and stopper Osumanu Husseni, have also been outstanding this season as the team has only conceded four goals in the 10 matches in the NFL.

Considering it is Churchill's first shot at the title, the Goan team is not taking chances and has called three more players to report here for the final.

``We are expecting Mahesh Gawli, Jaspreet Singh and Sameer Naik to reach here,'' said Chathunni.

Without a Kolkata team in the final, it is to be seen how the spectators respond on Saturday. It is for the second time in 25 years that a Kolkata side has failed to make the final. In 1996, no Kolkata side participated in the tournament. The kick- off will be at 2.15 p.m.

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