BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
"Back in our days, players used to speak among themselves during the match," Sanjoy Sen was recounting in a press conference following one of Mohun Bagan's recent debacles. "Now, most of them play with leukoplast on their lips," he took a veiled dig at the players.
On Sunday, before a slender crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on a winter afternoon, the situation improved. At the heart of the proceedings, sat a newly signed Australian called Cameron Watson, who didn't look the fittest on the pitch, but imbibed a confidence the Mariners' midfield had been lacking since the Derby win a month back.
If you thought Bagan's biggest problem was Sanjoy Sen, you couldn't be more wrong. It was injuries and mediocre signings which was the problem.
The oldest club in the competition were one of the most vocal about increasing the number of foreigners and made several high-profile overseas signings. The hope was that the glittery foreign contingent would overshadow the mediocre Indian core - which, even on paper, seemed weaker than at least a couple of other I-League sides.
But then the injuries mounted. Sony Norde's unavailability proved crucial, but the game-changer was an abrupt fall of Yuta Kinowaki, who fractured his collar-bone and is now undergoing rehabilitation in Japan. In his absence, the Green and Maroons looked spineless with a dysfunctional midfield having little or no connection with the strikers.
While many of their frailties were once again prominent on Sunday, it seemed to be the end of the tunnel. Arijit Bagui, who returned as the right-back, was an obvious upgrade over the scrappy Abhishek Das, while Watson, who was signed by Sen on Arthur Papas' recommendation, turned out to be a vital cog in the middle, sucking the pressure and restricting the old war-horse Alfred Jaryan. This meant Ansumana Kromah and Dipanda Dicka didn't have to drop down so frequently anymore, thus increasing their threat in the opponent's third.
The defending champions, on the other hand, looked short of ideas but their determination kept them afloat. For all their grit and crunching tackles, they didn't create many chances in the first half, despite Leonce Dodoz often finding space down the right flank.
The first big opportunity of the match went the way of Aizawl when Kareem Nurain's wicked long-ranger almost brought back the Do Dong Hyun free-kick nightmares for Shilton Paul due to the sheer similarity of the strikes. But the Bagan captain was lucky enough to see it hit the post and bounce out.
Masih Saighani, the sturdy Afghani defender of Aizawl FC, was at fault for the opening goal. One of the better performing foriegners of the league bundled the ball into his own net to give Shankarlal Chakraborty a lifeline on his debut in the dug-out. After scoring only via penalty-kicks in their last four matches, this was a welcome change for Bagan, who went ahead via an own-goal!
All this, however, couldn't take the focus away from the struggles of their two forwards. Dicka, after two stellar I-Leagues and one CFL campaign, has been going through a rough patch, while Kromah was finding it difficult to make his way through the middle as Aizawl put bodies on the line. Both wasted chances much to the agony of the supporters gathered. Dicka failed to score despite being presented with an open net while Kromah couldn't place a header with the entire goal at his mercy.
Just when it was looking like Aizawl might sneak in an equalizer like they had done against East Bengal, a sublime lobbed through ball by Nikhil Kadam and a perfectly timed run by Dipanda Dicka completed the job for Bagan. The Cameroonian latched on to the delivery, rounded Avilash Paul and slotted the ball into an unguarded goal to get back some confidence and earn his team a comfortable two-goal cushion.
From there, Aizawl was never going to make a comeback. Their chances mostly came from one-off moves, not as a result of any sustained pressure. Bereft of last year's stars, this depleted side is not expected to go the distance in AFC Champions League playoffs and is already out of the I-League title race.
The same can't be said about Mohun Bagan. Yes, they are four points behind arch-rivals East Bengal, but a win against Minerva Punjab can change a lot of equations, with Sony and Yuta expected to return later this month.
Overall, it was a good opening 90 minutes in Shankarlal's innings, where he didn't tweak too many things. With away matches lined up in the second half of the season, tougher tactical battles await, but he can breathe a sigh of relief for the time being.
And for neutrals, what better advertisement for Indian football than a Tata Football Academy graduate defeating a former understudy of World Cup winning coach Vicente Del Bosque in his coaching debut?