A young Arambagh Krira Sangha side clinched the Independence Cup for the first time in history after handing reigning champion Chittagong Abahani Limited a 2-0 defeat in the grand finale at Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka Saturday.
Seven national players including senior ones like former Bangladesh captain Mamunul Islam, goalkeeper Ashraful Islam Rana, striking duo Towhidul Alam Sabuj and Shakhawat Hossain Rony started for big-spending Chittagong Abahani while Arambagh only had the experienced Maruful Haque as head coach, yet dominated the opposition.
The two sides played out a 1-1 draw in the group stage. Maruful this time around utilised the spirit and talent of his young charges through his own tactics which proved to be the difference in the final.
Maruful was full of praise for the dedication and spirit shown by his players and said the fitness of the footballers also played a crucial role on the pitch. Chittagong Abahani interim coach Zulfiker Mahmud Mintu, who has both played under Maruful and assisted him in coaching, also admitted that it was the game-plan that made the difference, along with fatigue and soulless performance of his players.
Arambagh also put up an inspiring display on their way to the Federation Cup final last season. Their top two performers from that squad - Mohammad Abdullah and Jafar Iqbal – were immediately bought by Chittagong Abahani prior to this season. Both started for the port-city outfit but only Abdullah managed to hit the woodwork once in the second half.
Chittagong Abahani missed the service of their two key performers this season - national winger Zahid Hossain and left-back Sushanta Tripura - due to injury as Zulfiker was forced to make a single change from the semi-final squad. He replaced defender Pintu Kumar Das for Sushanta, while Maruful named an unchanged squad.
Arambagh took full advantage of the absence of Chittagong Abahani's regular left-back as their youngster Arif continuously penetrated the opponent’s defence through the left flank. They also controlled the right flank where right-back Rockey made notable movements while Shahrier Bappy carried on his fine form in attacking midfield.
Arif put the Arambagh outfit ahead in the 20th minute, outwitting his marker Pintu to head home from the edge of the six-yard box following a precise cross by Bappy from the left side.
Arif put Pintu in trouble once again in the 27th minute when he dangerously ran through the left flank, outpaced his marker to break into the penalty area before his shot was blocked by the Chittagong Abahani goalkeeper.
Pintu was taken off the pitch immediately and substituted by national defensive midfielder Masuk Mia Joni within a minute. He was assigned the role of man-marking Arif.
Rockey doubled the lead in the 45th minute with a low, right-footed volley from a clever Arif cross, firing home into the top-right corner. Around 5,000 spectators at the gallery, majority of whom are Arambagh supporters, went wild.
Having taken control, Arambagh looked confident to keep the lead during a less-eventful second half where Chittagong Abahani improved their ball possession and created a couple of chances but left the pitch empty-handed due to their misfiring forward-line, comprising the national attacking duo.
Tearful Arambagh president Mominul Haque Sayeed hugged Maruful for more than a minute as soon as the final whistle was blown and later announced bonus of Tk10 lakhs for the team.
WHAT THEY SAID
Maruful Haque, Arambagh coach
Every trophy I won before I did it with experienced players in the squad capable of being champion, but this trophy is very significant for me and also the best among the other trophies which I have won. The average age of my players is around 20 and after working for 10 months with these young players I realised that they have something to contribute to the country's football. It's a different joy winning the title with the youngsters.
Zulfiker Mahmud Mintu, Chittagong Abahani coach
The team have many limitation. Centre-back Rakin was on the bench for the whole season but had to play [Saturday]. We failed to mark their players during the transition period. There was tiredness after playing five matches in two weeks. But when you play in the final you have to overcome these. Everything depends on the players but they failed to implement the plan properly.
Mamunul Islam, Chittagong Abahani captain
It is a positive sign that the young players are doing well. They capitalised the chances whenever they got them but when they made the error we couldn't utilise them properly.
Arif gives Arambagh the lead heading home a cross of Bappy
Sufil fails to connect Arif's low cross from close range
Arif dangerously breaks into the penalty area before his shot is blocked by Chittagong Abahani goalkeeper Rana
Mamunul's goal-bound, curved corner is tipped away by Arambagh goalkeeper Azam
Rockey doubles the lead with a low, right-footed volley from an Arif cross
Chittagong Abahani striker Rony heads straight towards the keeper following a Mannaf cross
Abdullah hits the woodwork following a Mannaf cross
(Arif 20, Rockey 45) 0 Ctg Abahani
Player of the final and tournament: Arif