Bencherifa's Bagan back with bang

Five matches, zero victories. Those were the statistics that, after five rounds of the 2008/09 I-League, belonged to Mohun Bagan, Indian football's most successful and popular club, whose supporters envisaged a seventh straight season of disappointment in the national league.

However, their dejection has been obliterated by buoyancy, courtesy of ten successive wins thereafter - a record since the country's domestic championship was inaugurated in 1996 (the National Football League preceded the I-League). The Mariners will, consequently, take a two-point lead at the summit into Round 16 of 22 this weekend.

This stunning turnaround is indebted to Karim Bencherifa, who masterminded a Calcutta Football League conquest in his first tournament as Mogun Bagan coach last September, and followed that up by guiding the side to Federation Cup glory three months later. Still, the wily Moroccan knew that success in the I-League, the country's most prestigious football competition, was a matter of demand rather than desire.

"Since day one I've had no illusions regarding the mission I have in hand, and the expectations from fans and officials of the club," Bencherifa told "Mohun Bagan AC is an institution in Indian football, it's one of the oldest clubs in Asia the fans are proud of that. Coaching such a special club with such a great history is definitely an honour, but it's also a huge responsibility. I knew the club is result-orientated.

The team have made thousands, if not millions, of fans happy this season, and I am very pleased about this. The destination of the trophy is now in our own hands.
Karim Bencherifa is delighted with his team's progress

"We ensured a difficult first five rounds but I was not concerned for two reasons. Firstly, we had earned the supporters' patience by performing well in and winning the Calcutta League. Secondly, I received unconditional support from the officials and fans, who never lost faith in us.

"It's always great when a team can put such a winning run together. It's taken a lot of effort from the club as a whole, but special mention should go to the players. Barreto has been a key player - he is a quality player, a true professional and a great human being. Bhaichung [Bhutia] has also played a crucial role with his leadership and goalscoring ability, but I must mention another very important player: the Mohun Bagan team as a whole."

Bencherifa was handed the reins of the Kolkata giants with the objective of recreating the halcyon days of old. Few, nevertheless, could have imagined the partnership between the emerging coach, 41, and this 120-year-old institution would begin so productively. Now, Mohun Bagan are en route to becoming the first Indian team to win all the major competitions they entered in the same season.

The Mariners' forthcoming hurdle is an imposing one, nonetheless: East Bengal, who have won their last two outings convincingly, will host their fierce enemies in the Salt Lake Stadium. "It's definitely a special game. It's the biggest derby in Asia and, without any doubt, there will be around 100,000 people in the stands on Sunday," said Bencherifa. "Mohun Bagan have not lost to East Bengal in the last nine meetings, and that's why I am quietly confident and I feel we have a psychological edge to get a positive result.

"It's a very important game for us. The team have made thousands, if not millions, of fans happy this season, and I am very pleased about this. The destination of the trophy is now in our own hands, so we have to keep our winning run going. Lifting the I-League trophy would be a very special achievement."