It was a game of two halves. If Mohun Bagan dominated for the opening 45 minutes it was Gokulam Kerala who were calling the shots in the second half.
But it is not for the first time that Mohun Bagan have let the game slip away from their grip in the second half. During the Super Cup semi-final against Bengaluru FC earlier this season, Mohun Bagan were leading at half-time courtesy of an Aser Dipanda goal but they switched off after the break and Bengaluru FC pumped in four in the second half to book their place in the final.
On Saturday, things went down the same lane as Bino George's substitution, minutes into the second half, completely changed the complexion of the game and suddenly it was Gokulam who found themselves on the front foot. With the introduction of Rajesh S, the Malabarians made better use of the flanks which repeatedly tested Mohun Bagan's defence. And it was a defensive mix-up which led to Gokulam's equaliser in the 71st minute.
Rajesh stood his ground not allowing Sankar Roy to punch properly and the loose ball fell for Arjun Jayaraj who headed towards goal. It was chaos in front of goal as Eze Kingsley failed to clear his lines and the ball struck the face of Lalchhawnkima before trickling inside the net.
Questions need to be asked on Bagan's midfield as they looked clueless after the break. Sourav Das and Omar Elhusseiny were completely outplayed by Mudde Musa and Arjun Jayaraj. Although Pintu Mahata and Britto PM had a significant impact in the opening half, they were more busy defending their goal when Gokulam upped the ante. Rajesh continued to be in the thick of action as a fingertip save from Roy saved Bagan from conceding the second after he was set up by Pritam Singh from the right. The fact that the 26-year-old substitute was allowed to have a free run from midfield and have a crack at goal from around 25 yards shows the ineffectiveness of Bagan's midfield.
It is an open secret that Sankar Lal Chakraborty relies on the wings with Arijit Bagui and Abhishek Ambekar playing vital roles. This strategy reaped dividends in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) but to continue with it in I-League as well might not be a sound plan. During the first half, when Bagui and Ambekar were allowed to overlap and support Mahata and Britto on the wings, Mohun Bagan looked threatening. But when George acted in the second half and instructed Pritam on the right and Rajesh on the left to pin down Arijit Bagui and Abhishek Ambekar respectively, Bagan's attacking prowess fizzled out in no time. The match was craving for an alternative action plan to stop Gokulam's ascendancy but nothing transpired. Starved of supply from midfield, Dipanda and Kisekka roamed ineffectively in the attacking third without testing Fabricio Ortiz or Daniel Addo.
Bagan also paid the price for being wasteful in the first half. Mahata was one-on-one with the goalkeeper but his shot struck the near post. Minutes later Henry Kisekka could have scored only if he had more power in his lobbed attempt as Abhishek Das got enough time to run back and make a goal-line clearance with the goalkeeper nowhere in sight.
Much was expected from the Egyptian playmaker Omar Elhusseiny but he looked completely out of touch in his debut on Indian soil. Apart from testing Shibinraj Kunniyil with a shot from outside the penalty box, he had no meaningful contribution in the game. Hence, Chakraborty was forced to substitute him with Mehatb Hossain immediately after Gokulam scored the equaliser.
Mohun Bagan must go back to the drawing board once they reach Kolkata. They have not tested themselves against quality opponents during the pre-season and it is natural that their defence and midfield looked rusty. Chakraborty must also ensure that he has an alternative blueprint in place when Plan A fails to produce the desired results as the going will get tougher with each passing game.