Kolkata Derby: The benching of Johnny Acosta a sign of things to come?
As East Bengal and Mohun Bagan prepare for the Kolkata derby, one can't help but feel that the fixture has lost much of its significance with regards to deciding where the I-League title ends up. Of course, it is still the marquee fixture of the season and a lot rides on how the fixture plays out for the fans, players and the coaches.
With nine points from six games, both teams are a massive eight points behind the league leaders Chennai City FC and do not look like challenging for the silverware unless there is a massive upturn in form.
However, at the start of the season, the story was very much different, especially for the Red and Golds. After the takeover by Quess Corp revived East Bengal's finances, they went on to do the improbable.
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Former Real Madrid Castilla manager Alejandro Menedez was handed the reins and Johnny Acosta, who played for Costa Rica in the 2018 World Cup held in Russia, was roped in. A World Cupper like Acosta taking to the field in the Kolkata derby would have been unthinkable for even the staunchest of fans.
However, a few months on, something even unlikelier looks set to happen. The said World Cupper might just find himself on the bench for East Bengal's biggest fixture of the I-League season. And not for fitness concerns or injuries but for poor form.
Yes, Acosta has already had the taste of the derby in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) which finished 2-2. Though he got the equaliser for East Bengal that evening, his defensive performances looked rusty as Mohun Bagan took a 2-0 lead before East Bengal's comeback.
Many put that down to the fact that he was short of match practice, having just arrived in Kolkata after a taxing World Cup campaign. But the narrative did not change for the 34-year-old who was supposed to solidify the defence and help the team mount a challenge for that elusive league title.
He has looked disenchanted and perhaps even disinterested at the heart of East Bengal's backline. The Costa Rican has looked slow and out of sorts. His poor performances were one of the major reasons behind East Bengal's run of three consecutive defeats which saw them ship six goals in three matches against Chennai City, Aizawl FC and Minerva Punjab.
With fingers wagging at the Costa Rican, coach Menendez, himself under pressure, took the bold step of dropping him for their last game against Gokulam Kerala. He paired Borja Gomez with Salam Ranjan Singh in defence as they ran out 3-1 victors.
Pointedly, this came right after Menendez defended Acosta's form. "All great players have a bad patch. I will always defend my players. They are doing well. Johnny (Acosta) is playing well I think.”
That Acosta might not be a part of the country's biggest derby is a real possibility now. However, that also highlights how the coaches are finally taking a leading role in team selection, especially for an important fixture. Given how the previous coaches, most recently Khalid Jamil, had very less say in such matters, particularly for a derby, this comes across as a welcome change.