BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
While score-lines like 6-0, 5-0 etc have become increasingly common in the premier club competitions in world football, at the Kolkata Maidan, conceding five goals in a derby is considered to be the nadir, a humiliation talked about for decades. The Red and Golds had netted five against their arch-rivals in 1975 and it took Mohun Bagan 34 years to settle the score.
From that perspective, the East Bengal supporters might well feel relieved that even after harrowing 90 minutes on Sunday afternoon, they conceded only twice. The Mariners toyed with their neighbours in one of most dominating derby wins in recent past, but missed a number of sitters in both halves to stop it from resembling a one-sided tennis-match score.
Before the match, the spotlight was on the two debutants. Dudu Omagbemi, who had started his sojourn in Indian football way back in 2001, returned for another East Bengal stint, while Akram Moghrabi started upfront for Mohun Bagan. Deviating from their usual strategy of playing lone strikers, both teams fielded double strikers to accommodate new imports.
There come moments in football, when the proceedings of a minute end up defining the whole season of a club, or having consequences even beyond that. The opening sixty seconds of this contest might play the same role for Khalid Jamil’s side.
Seconds after kick-off, Mahmoud Al Amna went on one of his signature runs down the middle, going past a few opponent shirts but was finally halted by Raynier Fernandes and had to pass it to Willis Plaza. The striker, as has been the case for the most of the season, gave away the ball cheaply and Bagan embarked on a counter which culminated in a goal in the 54th second. Akram cushioned a header onto Dipanda’s path after being fed by a measured cross by Nikhil Kadam and the forward did no mistake to slam the ball home.
By the time SankarLlal Chakraborty’s wards ended their celebration, Amna had signalled he would not be able to continue anymore. Within four minutes, the hosts had lost their best player and were a goal down.
To come back from there, the team needed character and that’s what they lacked. The passing was sloppy and tentative, the wing-play never got lively as the pair of Cameron Watson and Raynier Fernandes took control of the midfield. Mohammed Rafique played one of the worst matches of the season, while Armand Bazzoau and Prakash Sarkar were not sure about their positions, damaging the team’s shape every now and then.
In the opening thirty minutes, despite all these, Khalid’s men saw more of the ball, spending time in the Bagan territory, but the deliveries into the box were shambolic. Arijit Bagui, the Mohun Bagan right-back, was exemplary giving Yusa Katsumi very little space on the flank, as Willis Plaza and co. failed to create any clear-cut chances.
East Bengal’s sloppy defending from set-pieces, which has been their most consistent attribute this year, came to the fore again in the 35th minute, when Dipanda took a sublime side-kick to connect a corner-kick past a hapless Barreto. The fact that the main striker of the opponent was left unmarked epitomized Arnab Mondal and co’s problems at the back, but that shouldn’t take away anything from the Cameroonian’s strike, which reminded the young fans of a similar Alvito D’Cunha strike (2008) and the veterans of a Shyam Thapa back-volley (1978) on the same stage.
After the break, Khalid threw Cavin Lobo into the mix but to little avail. Shankarlal’s team put together strings of ground passes while their opponents were left chasing the ball, let down further by their inability to keep possession. Youngsters like Nikhil Kadam, Sk. Faiaz, Raynier all shone on the big stage with the first two running down the flanks, while Raynier took charge of the middle third.
For the neutrals, it was a pretty entertaining contest, mainly because the early goal was the antithesis of the safety first approach, which usually results in scrappy football. With the midfield not being overcrowded, both the teams had the chance to operate in some free space, making the tie more enjoyable.
But where do the two teams go from here?
It’s too early to say the Mariners are back in the title race, especially because they will play most fixtures away from home, but they once again showed how dangerous they can become when things start falling in place. With two proven goal-scorers, they have enough firepower in the squad to come out of Sony Norde’s shadow.
East Bengal, on the other hand, are once again succumbing to the pressure in the second half of a season. Khalid’s over-defensive approach has robbed points off them in the last few away matches and he has been outplayed tactically in the derby for the second time this season. The club has shown way too much patience to help Plaza regain his scoring boots, but now would be prudent to look out for a replacement at the earliest. Their two matches against Minerva Punjab can change the complexion of the title race, but for now, the Red and Golds are once again slipping down the table.