Those expecting a not so animus match between East Bengal and Bengaluru FC on Sunday, in Kolkata, should've known better.
The round four I-League clash between the two heavyweights of Indian football was a feisty encounter (any involving Mehtab Hossain will be feisty) that ended 2-1 in favour of The Red and Golds but the result shouldn't deflect the managerial efficacy of Trevor Morgan, the most important man off the pitch for the home side.
Though just two points separated the warring duo on the points table, the nature of form for both these teams segregated them clearly. Reigning champions, Bengaluru FC were flying, having conceded no goals so far this season, and were smashing in goals with consummate ease while East Bengal began struggling, only an injury time goal giving them a point against Aizawl FC at home while being made to work to register wins in their next two encounters.
The opening half-hour barely troubled the critics' expectancy of proceedings. The Blues were supple and slick with their passing in the middle of the park, building moves patiently and without any of the 'hoof ball' so typical of Indian football in general.
The incessant pass and move paid dividends. Rahul Bheke led the home side to a breakdown of concentration without the ball, conceding possession which thereby led to the side in the away corner lending a hefty upper cut to the Lal Holud.
The exuberant Chekiyot Vineeth celebrated by kissing his badge - a sight so synonymous on the turf nowadays. Now, with The Blues' tactics being rewarded, analysts had nothing to doubt the supposedly oncoming drubbing.
Yet, the exact opposite happened. The Red and Golds scored a fortuitous goal with the Bengaluru defence caught napping off a corner kick with the boisterous Ugandan, Ivan Bukenya in the thick of action.
Then there was a scuffle. Mehtab nipped the opposition, thereby getting under their skin. This time though, the tactic worked worked and Sunil Chhetri lashed out with Vineeth too getting in on the action.
East Bengal had gotten stuck into the opposition, and although Morgan may not have orchestrated this, it was a typically English thing to do!
He would certainly want to take credit for it, in hindsight, as the kerfuffle was the exact moment that the match turned on its head. The Kolkata-based side began to rapidly come back into the game and, save for a ten minute stint in the second half, the home side played like champions and made the opposition look rather pedestrian.
It is often said that good coaches start with the right eleven players, but it is only great coaches that can change their tactics and personnel on the fly.
Morgan saw that his 4-4-2 diamond was being chipped apart by Roca's triumphant 4-3-3 with Mehtab failing to cope against the trio of Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Cameron Watson and Lenny Rodrigues. With the Red and Golds increasingly relying on long balls to their strikers, the Englishman quickly effected a change.
He asked his wingers Lalrindika Ralte and Nikhil Poojary to tuck in and chase their man infield if needed. Wedson Anselme was also made to drop deep and East Bengal at times almost seemed like they had four men in midfield without the ball.
This completely nullified Bengaluru's passing movement and combined with the ferocious pressing effected in the second half, playing out of defence almost became suicidal on a few occasions.
Then, there was the addition of Robin Singh. Removing a static Ildar Amirov for a surprisingly fluent and gritty Singh, who certainly had a point to prove against his former employers proved to be yet another tactical masterstroke.He was the Yin to Willis Plaza's Yan, a combination that forced the Bengaluru defence to be prised open again and again.
Juanan and Johnson had a hard time dealing with the front men now but they refused to budge from their short passes out of defence and gave the ball away to the seemingly rejuvinated FC Goa striker multiple times in the process.
While refusing to give up the style of play might be considered brave in certain circles, this was pure idiocy considering Albert Roca's men refused to use the pace upfront against an ageing East Bengal defence as well. They never really tested Gurwinder Singh in defence who looked a tad off the pace in the match.
Morgan though made no such mistake and long diagonals were the way to go, releasing either the pacy Plaza or the exquisitely fast Poojary.
The U22 player literally had Sena Ralte wishing he wasn't on the field, leaving him for dead time and again while Plaza made a mockery of Juanan culminating in a clean nutmeg of the Spanish central defender.
Bengaluru's otherwise rampaging full backs now had too much on their plate and that in a way blunted their attacks as well.
Their Spanish coach, instead of bringing back the stability in midfield, threw on Alwyn George and Daniel Lalhimpuia into the fray. It can be argued that they were chasing the game and needed a goal but pushing in forwards without having anyone to deliver the ball never has worked and it didn't work here either.
In fact, it exacerbated the defensive frailities of the Southern side, their box being testament to continuous pressure in the second half. Johnson's mistake allowed Robin to score and win the match but the scoreline could have been far worse if not for Plaza's profligacy in front of goal.
Not only was the lack of a Plan B surprising for Bengaluru, the lack of pace at the back will be a cause for concern especially going on further in the league.
Alvaro Rubio, who was excellent in the Asian Football Confederations (AFC) Cup, seems to be a glaring miss. He was the calming influence in midfield and defence, popping up wherever and whenever he was needed.
Roca needs to introspect while Morgan can revel in the result, knowing that a statement has been sent to the league that East Bengal are serious contenders this time.
It's not that East Bengal don't have their own problems with Bukenya losing focus a couple of times which Bengaluru failed to capitalize on and wasting chances, but for now they have successfully made the reigning champions almost seem like a second grade team.
In spite of it this being early days in the league, Morgan has also managed to dispel that shroud of invincibility that hung over the 2014 Federation Cup champions which would give the other teams hope as well.