It had been raining incessantly in Kolkata from the morning and Mohun Bagan's mud-caked ground was being touted as the stronger adversary for the hosts than Manoranjan Bhattacharya's Tollygunge Agragami. Within the initial stages of the match, it was clear that the apprehension was not unfounded, as Lalchhawnkima was baffled by the bounce of the ball just outside his penalty box which allowed David Ngaite to run away with the loose ball. Minutes later Arjit Bagui lost his footing while delivering a cross at the opposite end.
But after dropping points against Peerless SC the Mariners could not have afforded the luxury to take time to adapt to the conditions. Moreover, coach Sankar Lal Chakraborty had been constantly harping to the players about the need to score in the first 45 minutes.
After the first few fixtures it has become an open secret that if Bagan are stifled on the wings, they will struggle. They suffered against George Telegraph as Ranjan Bhattacharjee deployed his full backs and wingers at an advanced position which kept a check on the over-laps of Bagui and Abhishek Ambekar. But against Tollygunge, these two players were allowed to have a free run and their link-up play with the advanced wide midfielders Pintu Mahata and Britto PM proved to be lethal.
Mahata was rightly adjudged the best player of the match as he was brilliant throughout the 90 minutes. He gave Phoolchand Hembram a run for his money and the defender was forced to take him down inside the box. But it was shocking to see Aser Dipanda's nonchalance while fulfilling his spot-kick duties. The Cameroonian not only failed to send the goalkeeper the wrong way but also shot so gently that it was easily kept out by Subham Roy under the sticks.
Bagan continued to make good use of the wings which helped them churn out multiple goal-scoring opportunities. Britto was handed his first start in his new colours and the Kerala born winger made the most of it. He was a live-wire on the right flank and displayed ample skill going forward with the ball negotiating the tough ground conditions.
He linked well with Azharuddin Mallick who was given a free role in the attacking third. Mallick swayed from one flank to another before crossing into the six-yard area where Dipanda kept lurking. The two wingers also swapped positions at regular intervals which further diversified Bagan's attacks.
Chakraborty was well aware of the dual threat of Tollygunge's Daniel Bidemi and Lago Bei and he had prescribed differential treatment for the two overseas players to keep them at bay. He set up a three-man zonal marking for Bidemi while Eze Kingsley and Lalchhawnkima was asked to keep an eye on Lago. Whenever Bidemi held the ball in midfield either Sourav Das or Shilton D'Silva was the first to chase him. The initial snatchers were supported by the wingers while the full backs were asked to keep a check on any third man movement to snuff out his passing options. Frustrated by the lack of supply Lago was often found dropping deep to see more of the ball.
But Bagan's profligacy in the goal scoring department remains a major concern for Chakraborty. Both his strikers made school-boy errors in front of goal. Dipanda could have scored a hat-trick if he had converted the penalty and had he not shot straight at Subham Roy with the entire goal at his mercy. Just minutes later, Azaharuddin even after getting the better of Roy, failed to push the ball into the gaping goal. There has been a negligible improvement in this aspect of their game.
But it is heartening to watch the young brigade slowly starting to bloom under the stewardship of Chakraborty. Sankar Roy has shown enough quality under the sticks to earn the coach's trust. 20-year old Sourav Das showed signs of promise against Tollygunge while Pintu Mahata, an academy product, is finally proving to be a worthy successor of Sk. Faiaz who has joined Indian Super League side ATK after having a prolific season at the century-old club.
Mohun Bagan will be without Kingsley and Bagui in their next match against West Bengal Police as they have accumulated the maximum number of permissible bookings before a one-match suspension. But Chakraborty can well rely on his youth brigade comprising of Gurjinder Kumar and Amey Ranawade to deliver the goods.