East Bengal miss Mehtab as Sporting share the spoils at Kolkata

The Red and Gold's title ambitions were left hanging by a thread as Sporting Clube de Goa snatched a 1-1 draw at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.....

East Bengal’s title hopes suffered a hammer blow as Sporting Club de Goa managed a hard fought 1-1 draw at the Salt Lake Stadium thanks to some clever defensive tactics and pressing in the final third.

Starting Positions and Interplay

East Bengal played with their conventional 4-3-1-2 formation, Subodh Kumar replacing the suspended Mehtab Hussain in the crucial anchor-midfield zone. Captain Sanju Pradhan and Lalrindika Ralte provided support on both sides of the midfield and up-front, the attacking trio of Penn Orji, Baljit Sahni and Edeh Chidi formed a mini triangle. Raju Gaikwad was a makeshift right back. 

The Flaming Oranje lined up in a 4-4-2 formation with Spanish striker Juanfri leading the attack. The central midfield pairing of Kalu Ogba and Rowllin Borges was flanked by the tough-tackling Jovel Martins and Pratesh Shirodkar.

The crucial tactical point to be noted from this particular I-League encounter was the narrowness of East Bengal’s attacking front men, who were rarely seen venturing out wide towards the flanks. Whereas the midfield was stretched throughout the zone, with Sanju and Ralte both playing ‘shuttling midfielder’ roles (partly central midfield, partly right/left midfield).

Sporting played briskly on the counter with Kalu Ogba given slightly more freedom than others in midfield.

East Bengal press off the ball and wasted passes

The opening 25 minutes went about at a sluggish pace with both sides trying to gain momentum. It was a slow burner as only East Bengal did their pressing duties in midfield while the Flaming Oranje were content with playing a few passes around, before lofting the ball towards the Spanish target man Juanfri. Lalrindika Ralte worked tirelessly on the left flank with his trickery, ball skills and robust energy. Similarly, on the right flank we saw Captain Sanju Pradhan pacing up and down, combining with Orji and Chidi to make space, but failed to get in that final cross into the box. Both Ralte and Sanju seemed to be intentionally placed in wing-back positions, but without excessive defensive duties.

On many occasions, we could see Kumar-Sanju-Orji-Ralte forming a midfield diamond within which Sporting’s main creative threat Kalu Ogba was trapped and found extremely difficult to wriggle free. As usual, Penn Orji and striker Edeh Chidi showed fantastic understanding with their link-up play and swift combinations. The Nigerian creator Orji would swoop in and around his fellow countryman Chidi to make the killer pass.

With the away side’s defenders paying extra caution to the physically powerful Nigerians, striker Baljit Sahni and ‘shuttling winger’ Ralte found themselves in good scoring positions on a number of occasions. Sahni headed the ball over Colaco’s crossbar from a delicate Edeh Chidi cross, while Ralte drilled the best chance of the first half wide after timing his run perfectly to a chip over by Subodh Kumar.

The Flaming Oranje’s goalkeeper Colaco had an acrobatic game between the posts, most notably when he made a superb flying save after Edeh Chidi blasted one towards the top corner. Even until the half hour mark, the Goans found it difficult to make swift attacking transitions from their defensive zone after winning possession, striker Barretto coming closest with a shot dragged well wide of Abhijit Mondal’s goal. Kalu Ogba’s marauding physical presence rattled the East Bengal midfield as he made some typical ‘Yaya Toure bursts’ from the centre circle, eventually being crowded out by the sheer number of bodies around him. 

Mehtab's absence felt

Subodh Kumar’s shaky performance in the defensive midfield role showed how dearly Trevor Morgan missed his midfield enforcer Mehtab Hussain. A patient brain at the centre circle, directing the players around him, controlling the rhythm of play, completing his passes and tackling tough was exactly what East Bengal needed to break down the resilient Goans.


East Bengal sorely missed Mehtab's presence in midfield

These were the qualities lacking in Subodh Kumar, and the main attributes of Mehtab Hussain - a deep lying midfielder who controls how others play around him and dominates the central midfield zone. 

Juanfri capitalises on East Bengal laziness

As the game approached half time, East Bengal seemed content with passing the ball around in defense to run down the clock and suddenly reduced the tempo of the game. This reduction in tempo gave the Sporting players an amazing opportunity to press the Red and Gold Brigade intensely, thus pushing the Kolkatans further back (who were still playing those lazy passes) into their final third, where they had no options.


Juanfri gave the Goans the lead going into the break

The Goans pressurized the East Bengal defense, forcing makeshift right-back Raju Gaikwad into an indolent error with a misplaced pass which Spanish striker Juanfri immediately jumped on, made space with a beautiful touch and curled the ball into the top corner magnificently from outside the box. Sporting were 1-0 up going into halftime, completely against the run-of-play.

The substitutes leading to an East Bengal fightback

The home side came out in the second half, transformed into a side with much more concentration presumably charged by some stern words from Coach Trevor Morgan during the interval. In the 50 th minute, Uga Okpara smashed the woodwork with a fantastic header from a long throw in by Raju Gaikwad. This lifted the spirit of the crowd as they sensed a comeback on the cards. The Kolkatans had upped the pace of the game by quite a margin, and were continuously trying to work down the flanks with Ralte and Sanju crossing from the wings.

Penn Orji started dropping deep into midfield to try and help Subodh Kumar, dragging the defenders along with him. This created space for Edeh Chidi to work and suddenly East Bengal were looking more threatening than ever. Blame it on the heat and subsequent tiredness of players, Sanju Pradhan was not getting his crosses in the right areas with the correct trajectory. His corners were getting sluggish and Sporting’s Jovel Martins had started winning the one-on-one battles with the home side’s captain. Subodh Kumar was becoming more of a liability with heavier legs and lesser pressing.

Trevor Morgan immediately sniffed a danger in this zone and made two quick substitutions. Kumar off, Cavin Lobo on. This was an attack minded substitution and Baljit Sahni off, Robin Singh on. These 60 th minute introductions increased the tempo and made an immediate impact. A quick free kick resulted in East Bengal’s left back Robert Lalthlamuana making an overlapping run and curving an inch perfect cross for Edeh Chidi to head in. The game was 1-1 and suddenly the left side combinations of Ralte, Robert Lalthlamuana and Robin Singh were made to look like a tactical masterstroke.

But eventually, tactics would go for a toss as the game became increasingly stretched with the players tiring and playing out of position and long balls bombarded towards the strikers being the only viable option. The only players maintaining their line and positions were the flat back four of Sporting Club de Goa. Central defenders Ángel Berlanga and Rojen Singh held their ground heroically, winning almost all the aerial duels with the Nigerians Edeh Chidi and Penn Orji.

In the end, the Goan side managed to hold onto one crucial point, whereas East Bengal were left ruing a ‘two points dropped’ situation yet again.

Learning points

Raju ‘Rory Delap’ Gaikwad has an amazing talent. His long throw-ins have the perfect trajectory for headers and set piece situations. The defender takes a long run-up and throws the ball with all his might creating excellent scoring opportunities. If he can improve his skills on the ball and become more versatile to adapting different defensive positions, his raw set-piece talent can be very useful for the Indian National Team in the future.


There are the floodlights for some very good reasons

The Indian FA must understand that afternoon kick-off timings in the summer heat lead to increased tiredness among players, reducing the rhythm and tempo of the passage of play, making Indian football an extremely difficult slow burner to watch, reducing the number of fans, hence leading to declining popularity of the game within the country. Timings need to be sorted out.

Artificial turf gives an awkward bounce to the ball as it lands, making it difficult for the players to control. This can lead to scrappy play and the smooth possession becomes difficult with every long bouncing ball played. Artificial turfs can be replaced, surely.

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