BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)
The attendance was better than expected. A three-month long political turmoil in the North Bengal had resulted in some trains from Kolkata getting cancelled, while the recent spate of violence at the Maidan kept many away from the ground. Rain could have also played spoilsport, but what panned out at the end was two hours of nail-biting drama. Not because it had top-class football, but because it was replete with school-boy errors, controversial referring and patches of brilliant counter-attack.
Before the match, it looked like an Aizawl FC reunion, where some other footballers had also been invited to make up the numbers. Kamo Bayi, Mahmoud Al Amna, Eze Kingsley, Laldanmawia Ralte, Lalramchullova – all key players of the Reds’ I-League winning squad last season, featured in the starting line-ups of the two teams while Khalid Jamil, the mastermind behind that famous ttriumph, prayed for his first trophy win in Kolkata football.
The start, if anything, was frantic and before the supporters could settle down, the seven time defending champions conceded. Azharuddin’s innocuous shot from the left was pushed into his own net by Carlyle Mitchell - who had scored an own-goal for his national team in the last international break also - past a hapless Luis Barreto as Mohun Bagan took the lead.
That early goal set the tone of the match. Al Amna, who was heralded as the ‘best foreigner to play in Kolkata since Jose Barreto’ by Mehtab Hossain before the tie, failed to live up to the hype as the opponents shackled him with zonal marking. As a result, East Bengal’s supply line to the attacking third was cut which saw Willis Plaza and Gabriel Fernandes wander like lonely tourists in opponent territory.
At the other end, the Mariners dominated proceedings. Nikhil Kadam, who was given the nod ahead of Chesterpaul Lyngdoh, was a livewire while Azhar could have added to his tally if was more prolific in front of goal.
The scenario changed when the Red and Golds equalized against the run of play. A temporary lapse in concentration by the Bagan defence saw Chullova set up Ralte for a simple tap-in just before the half-time whistle.
The thrilling tie only got more interesting after the interval as both teams were awarded a penalty each. Mohun Bagan’s spot-kick was given thanks to some needless tugging of a shirt by Mitchell while Raynier Fernandes’s imprudent decision-making saw him make a rash final challenge on the edge of the box. Both decisions can be termed ‘soft penalties’.
However, the tempers flared when Kinshuk Debnath was given a second yellow for a routine challenge. Players of Kolkata clubs - starting from the likes of Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar and Manoranjan Bhattacharya to Chima Okorie in recect times– have a long history of assaulting referees and Kinshuk, usually a soft-spoken guy, was not ready to let his chance of entering that hall of fame slip.
What followed was an ugly scuffle, where senior players like Shilton Paul put up a shameful example of dealing with officials. Referee Ranjit Bakshi followed up soon by flashing a red card to Surabuddin Mullick in what looked like a balancing act.
Mohun Bagan’s dominance for the larger part of the match can be counted as a moral victory for Shankarlal Chakraborty, but alas, that was not enough to end the trophy drought. Looking at the bigger picture, the 90-minutes also gave a hint of what can be expected from the remaining part of the season.
Never ever in their history, the two most decorated clubs have found themselves so cornered in the national stage and come winter, they will lock horns with the behemoth also known as Indian Super League (ISL). The bitter truth for the clubs’ fans is that the top players of the country have left them and if the football on Sunday was not top-class, it was not because it was an off-day. Rather, it is expected to be the standard going forward and not going to change anytime soon.
For now, that shouldn’t matter to Khalid Jamil at least, who had turned down offers from the two clubs during his playing days for their association with liquor brands. “Watching all this, I think I should have played the derby at least once,” he had casually remarked on Saturday, soaking in the hype and pressure of the marquee clash.
With the festivities having already arrived in this part of the world, it would be difficult for him to understand the gravity of the result for the supporters, but the record books show that his purple patch is continuing.
For the Mariners, the climax was not memorable at all. The consensus was that they have the better striking force between the two, but Shankarlal’s men lost the title only on goal difference. The inclusion of Sony Norde and Dipanda Dicka should elevate them to new standards, but at this point of time, losing out on the title for eighth consecutive time would seem heart-breaking.