ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
The marquee clash of Indian football, the one that once had the power to divide a whole state into two groups due to its underlying sociological implications and still manages to draw thousands to the field, was played for the 316th time at the Kanchenjunga Stadium in Siliguri on Sunday. Touted to have a telling effect in the title-race in the long run, the I-League encounter turned out to be another Kolkata derby that failed to live up to the hype.
This, though, has been the dominating trend in the derbies of this decade. While heroics in this tie have earned many players a permanent place in Indian football folklores, defeats have cost players dearly with supporters going as far as attacking their residence on some occasions. For example, former India national team captain Subrata Bhattacharya had to spend a full night sailing on a boat in the Ganges when Mohun Bagan supporters were looking for him following the team’s 5-0 defeat in 1975.
Over the years, this fear has propagated further and has stopped coaches from taking risks and of late has become the most distinctive feature of the derby. There was hope that with Trevor James Morgan and Sanjoy Sen sitting in the dug-outs, this trend will be broken on Sunday. But those prayers turned out to be futile.
With Bengaluru dropping points for the fourth consecutive match on Saturday, there was not much at stake other than pride. The coaches fielded the most predictable line-ups, with Morgan not including his newly signed striker Chris Payne in the match-day squad.
While the initial exchanges were scrappy, Mohun Bagan got into the groove first. After a series of unsure displays, the Bagan midfield had a good start, looking comfortable in possession as The Red and Gold shirts had a tough time chasing the ball. When Morgan’s men went to attack, their plans were one-dimensional, with Mehtab Hossain spraying long diagonal balls to the two wings which created very little problems for The Mariners’ defence.
Though The Green and Maroons dominated proceedings for the majority of the first half, they didn’t create many clear-cut chances. Sony’s venomous corner-kick was parried away by Rehenesh, who was largely untested other than that.
The second half saw a different Red and Gold brigade, who were more diverse in building up their attacks. Nikhil Poojary’s raw pace meant Sony Norde had to track back frequently to keep an eye on him, which resulted in Bagan’s biggest attacking threat losing its sheen. Wedson Anselme was far from his usual dynamic self in the first half an hour, but grew into the game. The best chance to break the deadlock went to Willis Plaza, who took advantage of Eduardo’s moment of hesitation only to see his shot being parried away brilliantly by Debjit Majumder. There were patches of brilliance in the encounter, but with both teams taking their feet off the paddle and the strikers failing to convert the half-chances, the game ended with the deadlock intact.
"After a certain point in time, I believe that both teams subconsciously did not want to lose. Hence, the result materialised as a draw," Morgan remarked after the match. "We were a little bit off in the first half, in the second half we were much better. But, we can do better than this as well," he added.
On the other hand, Sanjoy Sen opined that the lack of precision in the opponent box stopped his team from claiming all three points. ''We created chances but there was a lack of what you call the 'final ball','' he told the media.
While there were eight players taking part in their first derby, most of them passed the test with average marks. Eduardo and Bukenya looked solid at the back, barring a couple of occasions and the likes of Poojary and Bose displayed their potential. Darryl Duffy had to drop deep with the supply line missing, while Jeje Lalpekhlua and Robin Singh remained mostly anonymous.
For Bagan, Souvik Chakrabarti excelled in his midfield role and with a neat piece of dribbling, had almost opened the goalscoring on one occasion. It was surprising to see Rehenesh get the man of the match award since he had to make only one good save in the whole match.
With all among Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal earning one point each in this weekend, the complexion of the title race remains the same. Historically, Morgan’s teams have been very vulnerable in the fixture that follows the Kolkata derby, having won one among six, that too against minnows Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The next four matches, where they will only play outside Kolkata, will have a big role in shaping up their title challenge.
Their arch-rivals, on the other hand, will be eager to extend their 11-match unbeaten run in the tournament as the squad finally seems to be recovering from their injury problems. It was not a derby that we will remember for long, but the coaches didn’t mind going back with one point apiece.