War of attrition. That's all that East Bengal and Mohun Bagan dished out in their I-League 2017 clash on Sunday. It was a dour affair, with both teams lacking innovation in their build-up and incisiveness in the attacking third, the shots were weak and the finishing lethargic. In the end, a goalless draw was the most appropriate result, and the fans who had packed Siliguri's Kanchenjunga stadium to the rafters on a wintry Sunday afternoon, hoping for a high-octane, high-on-adrenalin contest, went home a touch disappointed.
The Kolkata derby, which is the marquee contest in all of Indian football, did not live up to its billing, and perhaps the only moment of drama was when East Bengal captain Lalrindika Ralte, who is one of the most gifted players in Indian football, chose to play a thug for a change.
It all started with Mohun Bagan's Scottish forward Darryl Duffy's challenge on East Bengal goalkeeper TP Rehenesh at the stroke of halftime. Pritam Kotal's cross found Jeje in an advantageous position inside the East Bengal box, but Gurwinder Singh came to East Bengal's rescue. The clearance fell to Souvik Chakraborty, who showed some nifty footwork to make room for his shot, which, however, lacked sting, and didn't trouble Rehenesh.
As the East Bengal goalkeeper dived to grab the ball, an overeager Duffy ran into Rehenesh, causing the latter to hurt his hand. An infuriated Ralte ran in and pushed Duffy aside, though the Scot seemed genuinely apologetic. This did not go down well with the Mohun Bagan players and it almost precipitated a free-for-all. Luckily, the referee took control of the situation before it could spill over into the stands, which is always a possibilty in the charged up atmosphere that the Kolkata derby is played in.
For a brief while, though, it brought back memories from that dark evening in December 2012, when a red card for Bagan's Odafa Okolie triggered crowd violence at the Yuva Bharati Krirangan, leading to Bagan's Syed Rahim Nabi suffering a grievous injury. There were ugly scenes with lathicharge, 40 people being injured and Bagan pulling out of the match. Thankfully, nothing of that sort happened in Siliguri on Sunday and Ralte escaped with just a yellow card.
Coming back to the football, the first real chance of the match came to Mohun Bagan's Pritam Kotal. Katsumi Yusa's corner in the 14th minute was headed away by Robin Singh. The ball was retreved by Sony Norde, who staved off the challenge from two East Bengal defenders to send in a cross inside the box. The ball fell for Kotal whose shot was saved by Rehenesh.
The red and gold goalkeeper had a fine outing, and rose to the occasion again in the 34th minute, palming away a Norde corner that almost curled its way into the net. On the other hand, Norde, who can really be a handful for the defenders, had a quiet match by his standards. The architect of Mohun Bagan's I-League triumph in 2014-15 was being kept under tight leash by the red and gold brigade, with two-three players closing him out almost every time he touched the ball.
While Mohun Bagan had the better of the exchanges in the first half, East Bengal did have their chances. They were relying largely on long balls into the rival penalty box, hoping to get their Trinidadian forward Willis Plaza at the end of them. Plaza had scored five goals in the I-League this season, and along with Haitian Wedson Anselme (who also had five goals to his name so far), had been regarded as a great recuit for East Bengal. If Sunday's match is anything to go by, Plaza has still a long way to go before he can be a Mike Okoro or Cristiano Junior for the red and golds.
The best chance of the match, in fact, came the Trinidadian's way in the 57th minute. Robin Singh headed a ball onto the path of Plaza, who beat a sluggish Eduardo, and found himself one on one with the Bagan custodian Debjit Majumder. The Trinidadian's volley, however, was parried away by Debjit. It was an absolute sitter and could well have made all the difference in the cagey affair that it was.
That was, however, not the only chance that Plaza spurned. In the 22nd minute Robin Singh had put Plaza in the clear down the right-hand side of the Bagan box, but the latter shot straight at the goalkeeper. In the 51st minute, Plaza's first touch let him down, after Rahul Bheke intercepted a Norde pass and played Plaza clear down the right. Then in the 75th minute, he was slow to control the ball and was easily dispossessed. In the closing stages, Plaza got at the end of a long ball from Ralte, but as he was being swarmed by Bagan defenders, the Trinidadian forward played an aimless pass.
Wedson, on the other hand, showed some energy. He had a crack at goal in the 28th minute. The Haitian brought the ball down well and turned before unleashing a shot which, however, sailed over.
East Bengal piled on the pressure in the second half, but what they lacked, one feels, was the zest, verve and skill of a Do Dong-hyun, Orji Penn, or Suley Musah in the midfield, or the striking prowess of a Bhaichung Bhutia upfront. Bheke and Nikhil Poojary showed some intent for the red and gold brigade, and Bheke was the starting point for many an East Bengal foray down the right flank. Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, were left searching for their Jose Barreto, IM Vijayan and Chima Okorie.
Duffy, though, had a really good opportunity to put the green and maroon team ahead in the 74th minute. He had the East Bengal defence backtracking and in a spot of bother, but his shot was deflected off Gurwinder.
Mohun Bagan could have sealed the match in stoppage time at the end of 90 minutes. Balwant Singh's cross was on its way towards Duffy, who would only have had to tap in from close, but Ivan Bukenya came up with an important interception, which had shades of the legendary Samuel Omollo.
Sunday's clash would not go down as one of the more exciting Kolkata derbies, but neither team went flat out. It did not make for great viewing as far as the spectators were concerned, but made for tactical sense. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were No 1 and 2 on the table going into this match and were unbeaten so far. Clearly, neither wanted to lose, and adopted a safety-first strategy. The result served both teams just right, with East Bengal consolidating their position at the top with 20 points from eight matches, while their arch-rivals a close second with 17 points, having played a match less.
The top flight league in Indian football has been won seven times among these two glamourous clubs, but they have won it only once in the last 13 years. Neither would want to squander the good start that they have got this season.
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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2017 12:08:34 IST