ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
Not many can recall the exact year Swapan Ball started sitting on the East Bengal bench. However, most people who have seen the Kolkata derby in the last three decades would remember the manager of the team, reacting to every referring decision with the excitement of an adolescent fan. A diploma degree holder in engineering, Ball left his job for the love of his club and even worked as the manager of a sand mine to make both ends meet before going on to become one of the most well-known club officials in the country. The derby on Sunday will be the first one after he passed away in July.
If that is the most glaring absence off the field, on the turf it is absentees' galore. The Indian Super League has poached almost all the stars from the two teams, especially Mohun Bagan. Faces like Mehtab Hossain, Debjit Majumder, Jeje Lalpekhlua, who used to play decisive roles in derbies in the last couple of years, have all left for greener pastures, leaving a large void on the footballing front. Even Sony Norde, who will play for Bagan in the I-League, is not part of the local league squad.
This may matter to the neutral, but the fans of the two clubs, who have travelled almost 600 kilometres to catch their favourite team in action in Siliguri will be undeterred by what’s not on the plate. A draw will be enough for the Red and Golds to win their eighth consecutive title, while the Mariners would need a win to break that streak. I-League winning coach Khalid Jamil knows very well that a defeat can end the club’s honeymoon period with him, while Shankarlal Chakraborty’s stocks will rise after being an assistant coach for three and a half seasons.
The two coaches’ playing careers had ended abruptly due to nagging injuries. While Jamil played for a significant time for the India national team, Chakraborty’s hopes were nipped in the bud when a wild tackle by Chima Okorie broke his shinbone into two in a derby. His outings in the CFL marquee clash as part of the coaching staff have been horrendous: leaving aside the last season when the Green and Maroons had denied fielding a team, his side had lost 3-1 and 4-0 in the previous two editions.
With head coach Sanjoy Sen recovering from a surgery, Sunday will provide a big stage for Shankarlal to change the narrative. While it is always imprudent to make predictions about the derby, it’s worth mentioning that East Bengal are superior on paper, at least due to the experience of their players.
Goalkeepers can be the Achilles’ heel for both teams. Shilton Paul’s shaky shot-stopping in derbies over the years has given birth to stars like Robin Singh and Do Dong Hyun, while Luis Barreto also doesn’t exude confidence in his outings. Bagan’s 4-4-1-1 will focus on outnumbering their opponents in the midfield, who are expected to line up in an orthodox 4-4-2. Ansumana Kromah, in a number 10 role, will have to drop deeper to help out the midfielders, but that would ease the pressure on East Bengal's deep defence, who have shown signs of crumbling multiple times this season.
While Mahmoud Al Amna and Kromah continue to grab the headlines, the performances of Shilton D’Silva and Mohammed Rafique will be of paramount importance. The first bullet point in Shilton’s resume is still his stellar show in Pailan Arrow’s 5-4 win against his current club six years ago and stopping Amna from dictating play will need a similar performance. Rafique, who had started his career as a second striker, is now reinventing himself as a box-to-box midfielder and will focus on reducingAmna’s load.
On the flanks, it looks like an even fight. Laldanmawia Ralte and Azharuddin Mullick can score goals while Chesterpaul Lyngdoh and Brandon would act as tireless outlets of crosses. East Bengal, in the last few matches, have left open space in their territory when the full-backs venture into attacking thirds and it can magnify the impact of the two Bagan wingers.
While Jamil certainly has the advantage due to his team’s superior goal-difference, he chooses to play the underdog. “When you know you have to win, it’s easier to go about the match. Playing for a draw can get tricky,” he says. Shankarlal, on the other hand, says East Bengal can count on many players for scoring. “Eleven different players have scored for them so far, so we need to be cautious. We are analyzing their tactics,” said the coach, who survived a mini-accident on Friday.
For the two of them, and for the supporters of the two clubs, this derby will mean many a thing. Depending upon the result, one camp will turn gloomy while the other will welcome celebrations earlier – with the biggest festival of the region only a couple of days away. An exciting 90 minutes is in the offing, but for footballers, coaches and supporters, the result will be much more important than the entertainment value.