By Kaustav Bera
With Atanu Mitra from the Saltlake Stadium
East Bengal defeated arch rivals Mohun Bagan 3-2 at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata to win the Kolkata League three years in a row and make it a hattrick for Trevor James Morgan. An Edeh Chidi brace (22', 72') punctuated by a Penn Orji strike (28') was enough to hand the Red and Golds a derby victory in spite of Odafa Okolie (38') and Tolgay Ozbey (92') scoring for the Mariners.
In what was the final match of the Kolkata League, East Bengal only needed a draw to secure the championship while anything less than a win would not do for Mohun Bagan.
East Bengal started with an unusual 4-3-2-1 formation with Chidi Edeh being the lone striker and Cavin Lobo and Penn Orji working as attacking midfielders. Mehtab Hossain played in a deeper position in midfield while Ishfaq Ahmed and Lalrindika Ralte were asked to marshal the flanks. Arnab Mondal paired up with Uga Okpara at the heart of the defense while Naoba Singh and Soumik Dey completed the defensive quartet.
Mohun Bagan lined up in a 4-3-3 fashion with Tolgay Ozbey and C. Sabeeth joining skipper Odafa Okolie upfront. Though Ichezona Aniyeche had not fully recovered from his injury, Karim Bencharifa decided to start with him. With Quinton Jacobs suspended for the game, the responsibily of making the Mariners midfeild tick largely rested on Manish Maithani.
The match started with almost 65,000 supporters cheering their heart out for their favourite teams. The first few minutes were not a good advertisement for Indian football, as both the teams tried to play long balls to their towering strikers. The first good chance of the game came Mohun Bagan's way when Soumik Dey made a mess just infront of the East Bengal penalty box. He casually gave away the ball to Sabeeth, whose chip was saved well by an alert Avijit.
However, East Bengal started to dominate the midfield after a few initial mistakes. The first chance for the Red and Golds came in the 16th minute when Penn Orji had a good run down the right, dribbling a few opponent defenders on his way. He took a powerfull shot then, which was expertly parried away by the custodian Shilton Paul. The next chance came East Bengal's way only a couple of minutes later when Penn played in another great ball from the right end. But Chidi Edeh, the prolific Nigerian couldn't connect it, much to the agony of the Red and Gold faithful.
In the meantime, Ichezona, the star performer of the Bagan defense couldn't continue any further due to his nagging injury problem, forcing the Mariners' gaffer Karim Bencharifa to substitute him in the 19th minute.
However, it took Chidi less than five minutes to make amends, when the two Nigerian attackers of East Bengal combined well once again. Penn played in a ground pass from the left edge of the box and Chidi had a few Mohun Bagan defenders in front of him when he received the ball. However a melee in the box resulted in the Nigerian taking a number of shots, the first of which was brilliantly saved by Shilton. But ultimately the ball went into the net and East Bengal drew the first blood.
After the goal, East Bengal probably had the best five minutes of the match as their relentless passing made the Bagan midfield give away possession cheaply. Mohun Bagan also had a number of half chances in between, but Uga Okpara and Arnab Mondal were alert enough to ward off any danger that came their way.
In the 28th minute, East Bengal doubled their lead when a good build up play was finished off well by Penn Orji. The elegant Nigerian midfielder received the ball well inside the box and took a powerful ground shot, which defeated the full-stretched Bagan custodian to go into the net.
The twist in the tale came in the 42nd minute, when an uncharacteristic challenge from an East Bengal defender gave Mohun Bagan a free kick well away from the box. However Odafa Okolie, who has single handedly carried Karim Bencherifa's men for the majority of the season just showed his class yet again as he struck the freekick with such venomous swerve that it beat Abhijit Mondal all ends up. Even the Red and Golds faithful had to begrudgingly accept that they saw something extraordinary.
The goal served as a wake up call for the East Bengal players. After showing glimpses of his skill on the left wing, Chidi played a brilliant ball to the onrushing Penn Orji, who only had an open net to slot the ball in front of him. The midfielder however failed to double East Bengal's lead, as his right footed shot was woefully wide even after having the entire breadth of the net to aim for.
The story didn't change even after the players came out of the tunnel for the second half. Mohun Bagan, lacking a passer in the midfield, took resort to playing long balls to Odafa and Tolgay, both of whom were well marked by the East Bengal centre-backs. Though Odafa did conjure a few half chances all on his own, Tolgay was far away from his usual dynamic self against the club he had played the last two seasons.
With Mehtab and Ishfaq running the play, East Bengal took control of the play yet again and in the 72nd minute, the Red and Golds got the reward for all the hard work they had put in. Chidi Edeh survived a few tough challenges in the box before taking a shot at goal. Shilton, who was having a brilliant goal so far conceded a silly goal as it went into the net just inches away from his reach.
This made the encounter completely one-sided as Odafa was lacking a prolific partner upfront. However Mohun Bagan did manage a meaningless goal, last minute when Tolgay Ozbey had his first impressive moment of the day. The Australian striker had a good run down the right side of the East Bengal defense, before taking a powerful shot, which gave Abhijit no chance to pull off a save.