By Atanu Mitra
The marquee clash of Indian football was played out once again as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal faced each other in the semifinal of IFA Shield. Though East Bengal went through to the finals, it was hardly a performance worth celebrating, as the match had to be decided by penalties after a drab 120 minutes.
Right from the kickoff, East Bengal seemed to have a plan of thumping the ball upfront to their towering forwards, especially with Mehrajuddin Wadoo playing as a makeshift central defender for Mohun Bagan. Mehtab Hossain was as effective as ever, snatching the ball frequently and also kept switching play to the flanks with aplomb. However Penn Orji was nowhere near his best as his usual incisive 'pass-and-move' approach wasn't working for the Red and Gold.
This did little to their cause, as the impeccable Ichezona Anyichie was a rock at the back, marking the dangerous Edeh Chidi, whenever he had received the ball. In spite of manufacturing some good openings, East Bengal never really tested keeper Shilton Paul, who in any case looked shaky especially from the numerous corners which Morgan's men had won.
Speaking of Mohun Bagan, they missed the services of Syed Rahim Nabi, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) Player of the Year 2012. Due to his absence, Aiborlang Khongjee had to play as the makeshift left back. The Mariner’s midfield was as poor as it has been throughout this season, with the exception of Quinton Jacobs. The Namibian, who was brought in by Bagan in the winter transfer window was exceptional and played the role of the pivot as he thwarted opposition attacks with ease. He passed the ball with elegance, playing confident one-two's with the wingers. However Odafa Okolie couldn’t find much space around him, as he was usually double or triple teamed as Morgan clearly understood Bagan's main threat and looked to nip that in the bud.
Although the Mariners did have possession, they seemed to lose the plot in the final third and save for a magical Jewel Raja run down the flank, had nothing to show for in the entire half. What they did brilliantly was press the ball with gusto which led to the opposition losing the ball on many occasions, but their own failure to string more than two passes together meant that they could not take advantage of that.
However, in the second half it was a different Green and Maroon brigade altogether as they took the field with renewed determination which could be attributed to some dressing down given by coach Karim Bencherifa. It took them not more than 2 minutes to take the lead as young C.S.Sabeeth slotted a ball into the net, making the 35,000 Mohun Bagan supporters present in the stadium erupt in ecstasy. The goal changed the course of the game, as East Bengal started losing the plot.
|Karim Bencherifa's half time talk was an inspiring one|
They seemed to lack a plan-B as the Mariners started to press the ball more effectively, increasing the number of interceptions in the middle of the pitch. The style adopted by Morgan’s men failed to cope up with the increasing pressure and the urgency of leveling the game was somewhat missing, much to the agony of the supporters present in the gallery.
Trevor Morgan proved once again why he is rated so highly in the Indian football circuit as he opted for a tactical switch. He replaced Penn Orji with the Aussie striker Andrew Barisic in the 69th minute, going for an all-out attacking 4-3-3 formation, in place of the usual 4-3-1-2 his team lines up with in every match. This was the turning point of the game as the impetus added upfront did the trick for East Bengal.
Andrew Barisic had not been a favourite among a large portion of East Bengal fans since his arrival and his mediocre performance in the first few appearances made him stay under the shadow of an in-form Chidi Edeh. The Australian had surely been searching for an opportunity to make amends. And what could be a better stage than a Derby with almost 75,000 people cheering their hearts out.
Right from crossing the touchline, the new recruit of the Red and Gold created havoc in the Bagan defense, playing out passes and occasionally taking the responsibility of shooting at the target. It was in the 86th minute, when he walked into the hearts of millions of East Bengal supporters as he scored a gem of a goal, placing the ball to the top corner of the opponent net and saving the day for his side.
On the other hand, it was not a good day at the office for Karim Bencherifa. Although the Moroccan's half time team talk certainly did wonders as his team played their best football of the match in the 25 minutes after the break. However, the former Salgaocar coach's decision to add another striker did not got as planned. Tolgay Ozbey's entry into the game for Quinton Jacobs meant that East Bengal had more of the ball in the midfield allowing them to dictate the play.
Tolgay also looked unfit as he was a pale shadow of his usual dynamic self.
To sum it up, this clash was not the best of the recent derbies, if one takes into account the quality of the football played. However it went down to the wire, turning out to be a feast for any football lover. The teams could have certainly played more aesthetically pleasing football, but that could never be expected especially when two astute tacticians are at the helm of both sides, and you can always expect a close match with moments of brilliance, one which Andrew Barisic and the terrific Gurpreet Singh Sandhu provided.
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