BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
To say that East Bengal were under pressure before this match would be a massive understatement. In Kolkata, the pressure comes from many angles – supporters’ forums, media and factions in the club. With a single point from the opening two matches, all the aforementioned entities raised questions aplenty – mainly about the futures of Khalid Jamil and Willis Plaza.
Against such a backdrop, on Saturday evening, facing an in-form Shillong Lajong side that had won their first two I-League matches, the Red and Golds showed their true potential. The 5-1 score-line had much to do with some schoolboy mistakes at the back by the travellers, but it truly depicted the kind of dominance Jamil’s men had over the proceedings.
The club’s 1-0 defeat in the hands of arch-rivals Mohun Bagan has been dissected from a hundred angles and the reason stressed by most club legends and pundits was the same: the lack of Bengali players in the starting XI. “They (the outstation players) are not Krishanu Dey or Bikash Panji. You need to make them understand the significance of the derby,” Debabrata Sarkar had told reporters after a meeting with the squad before the marquee clash.
As the calls to include Bengali players in the starting XI grew hoarse, Arnab Mondal returned to the fold. Once the most dependable Indian central defender, the local boy has lost his form and stature in the last 18 months. It would not be an exaggeration to state that he found a place in Saturday’s XI because of the relentless pressure put on the I-League winning coach by the club management and vernacular press.
The burden of expectation was to be clearly seen in the body language of the professional as well. After one diving challenge in the first half, teammates hugged him, Eduardo kissed his forehead. Arnab could have told them he has made thousands of those tackles in his professional career, but he was also basking in those moments of success. The loud chants in his name added to the aura. Overall, it was an error-free display of defending from the experienced campaigner.
Jamil had made four changes to his backline including the goalkeeper and there were clear signs of improvement in most departments. U-22 player Prakash Sarkar put in an impressive shift as the right-back, though it must be noted that he didn’t have to face any foreigner. Salam Ranjan Singh was deployed as left-back and made some darting runs down the channel in the late stages, but was rarely tested at the back.
Goalkeeper Mirshad, on the other hand, had some very nervy moments. He misjudged a corrner completely, leading to a clearance on the goal-line and had almost conceded from an innocuous free-kick. He made a couple of good saves, but those were routine ones and it remains to be seen whether Luis Barreto is again reinstated between the sticks.
The star of the show, in the overcast evening, was the East Bengal midfield. Mahmoud Al Amna was his usual self and opened the scoring besides running after every loose ball. Cavin Lobo’s creative avatar was constrained as he was told to play a deeper role while Bazie won the midfield battle against Odafin.
Yusa Katsumi, who had struggled to create moves down the center in the last match, was moved to his preferred position on the flanks and was an outlet of quality attacking moves. East Bengal spent most of their time in the opponent territory and the Japanese was instrumental in keeping possession, ignoring the hackling by the Lajong midfield.
But despite all their heroics, a 24-year old Mizo boy took the center-stage. Laldanmawia Ralte had broken the hearts of East Bengal supporters last season by scoring in Aizawl FC’s 1-0 win and kept his goal-scoring form intact by hitting the back of the net twice. He was lively throughout the contest, stretching the Lajong full-backs to the touchline and created space for the foreigners to make their runs.
That, though, didn’t change the fortune of Willis Plaza. The Trinidad and Tobago striker once again procrastinated before taking shots inside the box on at least two occasions, with the ball been stolen from him both times. He had a couple of half-chances, but failed to pull off anything noteworthy and added to the misery.
But the jubilation of the win should put these concerns to bed at least for the coming week. Eduardo and co. conceded their fourth goal from dead-ball situations, but with the kind of form the midfielders have shown, the juggernaut can get rolling.
The next five matches are against Churchill Brothers, Chennai City, Gokulam, Neroca and Indian Arrows – who are either new or are full of youngsters. If Khalid Jamil has to end the 13-year wait for the I-League at the club, his troops will have to keep the momentum intact in these ties.