Derby watch: Why the Red and Gold are the team to beat this season?

With the much anticipated Kolkata derby just around the corner, looks at how East Bengal are the trends setters this season...
By Kaustav Bera

December 9, 2012 is a monumental day for a football fanatic. The day where supporters will jostle among one another to find a premium place at the stadium. The day when throngs of people will be out on the streets, to outshout each other. The day where football will not only be the talk of the town, but of the entire country. The day where pubs will be screening football, instead of cricket. Oh wait, Did you think I was talking about the Manchester Derby at the Eithad Stadium? You couldn't be more wrong.

You would not have to go too far to realize what exactly I am talking about. Just move your gaze about 10,500 km apart and you reach the City of Joy, Kolkata or Calcutta as it was previously known, the Mecca of football in India. There lies the answer what we are looking for. The setting is the Salt Lake Stadium and the derby in question is the famed Calcutta Derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, two of the oldest and most prestigious clubs in India.

Have you booked your seat yet?

What sets the derby apart, besides the usual passion and euphoria connected to any local derby match, is the historical difference between the two stalwarts of Indian football, which has continued even to this modern era. Nowhere is it more prominent, than among the two rival sets of supporters. It's probably gospel that the Mariners faithful (Mohun Bagan fans) can never agree with the Red and Gold supporters, no matter what may be the topic of discussion. With distinctly different cultures and ideologies, it's not only 'football' that drives the wedge between the two clubs, and makes the contest interesting on so many different levels.

Coming back to football, this year's derby is slightly different from the first derby of I-League 2011-12, which Mohun Bagan won 1-0, quite fortuitously, one might add. Then the gap between the two teams was a slender 2 points, in the favour of the Green and Maroon. The tables have turned this time around, as it is East Bengal who are bossing the I-League and enjoy a massive nine point advantage over their rivals, after nine rounds of I-League. It is Trevor Morgan's side who are the only team to remain unbeaten so far in the league, and are hot on the heels of league leaders Dempo SC. Unlike last year, the Goan champions have not quite run away with the title as yet.

I-League standings before round 10*
*only showing top eight teams
1 Dempo SC 22 9 7 1 1 21 8
2 East Bengal 21 9 6 3 0 15 1
3 Churchill Brothers SC 19 9 6 1 2 15 8
4 Prayag United SC 14 9 4 2 3 26 14
5 Pune FC 14 8 4 2 2 14 11
6 Pailan Arrows 14 9 4 2 3 12 11
7 Mumbai FC 13 9 4 1 4 17 16
8 Mohun Bagan 12 9 3 3 3 11 11

The East Bengal side, meticulously put together by Englishman Morgan, who has been in charge of the outfit since taking over in the 2010-11 season ( a long time if you are a manager in Kolkata, or even at Chelsea for that matter! ), have finally peaked after finishing second twice consecutively so far in the I-League under Trevor's tutelage. What is exceptional about this East Bengal side, besides being unbeaten for 15 matches stretching back to last season's loss against Shillong Lajong (in the I-League) is the cohesiveness of the unit, where the players play not as isolated individuals, but a team with a definite purpose.

Part of the credit does go to the fickle minded match officials in Kolkata, world renowned for their 'hire and fire' policy who have stuck with Morgan, even allowing him a free hand in choosing his players, which is pretty much unheard of, in the Kolkata football scene. Having the freedom to select his own personnel to suit his tactics and gameplan has worked wonders as Morgan has won the Federation and the Kolkata Premier League twice, besides winning the Super Cup. Only the I-League has eluded his grasp so far. However, on this season's form, the wait will decidedly be a short one for the Red and Gold supporters.

Is this Trevor Morgan's season?

Morgan has successfully moulded the players into a disciplined lot, which is pretty evident when you consider that in the 9 rounds of I-League so far, East Bengal has conceded a solitary goal. With a dedicated core group of players which he has retained during his tenure, the solidity of the East Bengal outfit is second to none, not even to champions Dempo whose similar philosophy has earned them aplomb and more importantly, trophies to display in their cabinet.

Tactically too, Morgan has been a revelation this season. What was previously unheard of, in the context of Indian football atleast, has been successfully implemented by the former Bolton Wanderers player. While it would be sacrilege to compare the Kolkata outfit to Spanish giants FC Barcelona, the apparent similarity is there for all to see. Although they start out with a not so special 4-4-2 formation, the incredible fluidity is what stands out. The 'so called' wingers Harmanjot Singh Khabra and Ishfaq Ahmed drop centrally in midfield when they do not have possession to scupper any opposition advances. Ishfaq, a mazy winger who was renowned for his pace has been converted into a ball winning midfielder, and has clearly been a revelation this season, along with the tireless Khabra.

What's the formation gonna be?

What this translates into, on the field is a dynamic 4-3-3 formation with creative playmaker, Penn Orji given the free reign to pop around anywhere he pleases, and his forays down the right wing have been the foundation of East Bengal's success. Of the two central strikers, Manandeep peels off to the left with Edeh Chidi holding up play in the middle, bossing the opposition defenders with his strength. The three in midfield with anchorman Mehtab Hussain, being the usual solid presence allows the front three to freely express themselves without having to worry about their defensive duties.

The two screens in front of the central defense have clearly been the reason for East Bengal's miserly defense. New signing Arnab Mondal fitted right in beside the experienced Uga Okpara, who has been a rock now for three seasons running. What this means is that they have a water tight defense, in spite of having a relatively inexperienced goalkeeper in Gurpreet Sandhu. With Mondal having started all nine matches for them, the lack of too much shuffling has also been the key to consistency.

Kolkata derby
East Bengal hosts Mohun Bagan

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Morgan's man management skills have also been at the fore, allowing the team to gel together and play brilliant eye catching football without compromising on stability, something his counterpart Karim Bencherifa, can only hope for. A lack of injuries where he has the whole squad to choose from and astute summer purchases have also been the secret to his success so far. Robin Singh and Lalrindika Ralte have proved it time and again, as they have come on and scored crucial goals, which have turned the match on their heels. Not one of them have expressed a bit of discomfort at being used as substitutes, such has been the effect of the Englishman's presence in the dressing room.

However, a derby can be one of the most unpredictable matches, where form and capability go out of the window and it is sheer adrenaline that drives the players to perform beyond their usual levels. What Morgan needs to be wary of is the impact of a defeat on his bunch of players, who have grown accustomed to winning. On the other hand, he will be confident with the work he has done so far, that even if their unbeaten run does come to a premature halt, it will only mean the blossoming of a new one, one that will take them to the all elusive I-League summit.

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