December 9, 2012 will be remembered for all the wrong reasons when East Bengal and Mohun Bagan had last met on the football pitch. Syed Rahim Nabi was injured by a stray missile which resulted in Mohun Bagan refusing to come out in the second half, citing security concerns.
The Mariners were subsequently banned and reinstated in the I-League after having their points deducted and paying a hefty fine. Goal.com caught up with Mohun Bagan’s coach Karim Bencherifa for an exclusive interview ahead of the highly anticipated Kolkata derby.
The return of the Mariners into the I-League saw them being stripped of all their points and the Kolkata giants had to start from scratch all over again. Hence as things stand, Mohun Bagan are at the bottom of the league with 5 points from 14 games.
It will be a Herculean task for Green and Maroon brigade as they battle relegation but coach Bencherifa seemed unfazed as commented on the importance of a win against their arch rivals East Bengal.
"Besides the hype of the derby, a win against East Bengal will give us three points which will help us avoid relegation, it is as simple as that. We were back in the league and were 10 points behind the team above us, now we are 7 points behind which is an improvement but we need more wins, more points to ensure our stay in the top division."
A major factor for Mohun Bagan’s limited success has been their constant injury woes. When it comes to high profile matches like this one, injuries and suspensions do play a major role. Bencherifa was glad to have a full squad for selection.
"Two months ago, several players were injured. Now I am happy to say that we have no injury problem at all."
Clubs from Kolkata have always been challenging for the title and have always put together strong teams. However, shocking as it may seem, no team from Kolkata has won the I-League since its formation in 2007. Winning the league is a tough proposition for any coach, as Bencherifa commented, "Winning a Cup competition is an easy task as you have to be in good form for 2 weeks and with a little bit of luck you end up winning a Federation Cup or Durand Cup. But winning I-League is a huge task as you have to be consistent throughout the season. My objective now is to avoid relegation and then we challenge for the I-League next season."
One would expect both sets of players to be under immense pressure when it comes to matches like this. The Moroccan coach was composed going into arguably India’s biggest derby match as he commented, "Well we are used to this kind of pressure, we have experienced players who know how to deal with these kind of situations."
It will be interesting to observe the crowd’s behaviour after what happened the last time these two teams met. Karim Bencherifa sent a personal message urging both sets of fans to maintain a healthy atmosphere this time around. The Moroccan’s message included, "Many things have happened in the last derby and I hope that all of us coaches, players, referees, officials and fans have learnt a few things from what happened. If we do that we will raise the standard of the derby with not only the players giving a top performance on the field but also the match officials and fans will encourage their team in a sporting manner. My dream is to see a high quality match with Mohun Bagan winning it."
In the past many coaches have complained about important matches being played right after International friendlies. The coaches complained about the lack of time available for them to prepare their team for important matches and the strain these International friendlies have caused to their squads. Bencherifa though, did not seem to have a problem with the International break as he commented, "I don’t think it would have any effect, we just have to stay positive."
All eyes will be on the Mariners’ striking pair of Tolgay Ozbey and Odafa Okolie with the latter’s return inspiring his team to triumph over a well organised unit in the form of ONGC. Both the attackers scored in Mohun Bagan’s last game and look in good touch. Whether they eventually cause problems for the Red and Gold’s backline, only time will tell but Bencherifa seemed to have a lot of faith in his players.
"Both Tolgay Ozbey and Odafa Okolie are good quality strikers and can score against any opposition in the I-League. They have just started playing together and the understanding between them and all the players is improving game after game which is a good sign."
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