It is fitting that this week in Indian football ends with the Kolkata derby being played at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium. For it will remind us, in vain, of the days when a huge fan base and pure love for a team were enough for a football club to last for a lifetime. As it should ideally be.
It comes at the end of a week in which Mohun Bagan, the Goliath of Indian football, succumbed to the perils of modern era. It traded its heritage in favour of full commercialisation, partially out of necessity but largely done by design — it was the end goal of those who now run the sport in India.
It has left a fan base that spans generations in a limbo, wondering whether the club’s symbols — its colours, its badge, its identity — will be kept alive at all. They will likely be. You have to be a whole new level of stupid to do away with such symbols.
On Sunday, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal fans will once again gather for the Kolkata derby. It will be the second-last installment of this derby in its current, its purest, form. Nobody knows whether there will be one next season. Mohun Bagan, or whatever the club will be called after it is merged with ATK, will play in the Indian Super League (ISL). East Bengal, as of today, remain in the I-League.
With all of this in the backdrop, there remains a battle to be won on Sunday. A game that means everything to the supporters. You can lose the league title and also finish behind your opponent in the table, but you can’t lose this game.
Bagan head into the fixture as favourites. Head coach Antonio Vicuna’s team looks more settled and is now functioning well despite a slow start to the season. Vicuna and the majority of his players have been together for over seven months. "We are 100 percent ready," the coach had declared before the season opener.
The team is unbeaten in its last five games, which includes a run of four wins on the trot. A draw in Ludhiana against Punjab FC in the last game too had a silver lining: 19-year-old forward Subha Ghosh, scoring a late equaliser, and goalkeeper Sankar Roy, with a heroic save, bailed the team out on a day when the pitch wasn’t conducive for Bagan’s possession-based style of play.
Ghosh has scored three goals this season. He is yet to make a start, though, and all of his four cameos have been less than 25 minutes. A remarkable record. Meanwhile, Roy has established himself as the first-choice goalkeeper since he came into the team in the third game, following a calamitous performance by Debjit Majumder in the home defeat to Churchill Brothers.
East Bengal fans, on the other hand, are fearing the worst. "We expect a defeat but we’ll go for the tifo (the large banner the fans display before the game)," one member of the East Bengal Ultras group told this writer. There is always a battle to be won off the pitch too. A statement by the supporters, different from the team.
Consecutive losses to Churchill Brothers, which was not entirely deserved, and Gokulam Kerala FC, which was fully deserved, have punctured East Bengal’s season. A defeat to Bagan could prove to be a killer blow — it will put the club nine points behind their rivals, albeit having played a game less. Unlike Bagan, head coach Alejandro Menendez's team had a significant overhaul in the summer. And things aren't fully in order yet.
The two teams have a similar setup on the pitch. Both clubs have Spanish coaches and four Spanish foreigners in the squad. But, as Bagan midfielder Jose Beitia explained ahead of the game, his team is "more creative" while his opponents are "more vertical" - that is, more direct.
Bagan aspire to play eye-pleasing football, East Bengal usually mix things up. Which doesn't mean Bagan can't mix things up. A 2-0 victory in Srinagar over a hard and physical Real Kashmir side showed a dimension to Bagan's play that cemented their title credentials.
Since the ISL grabbed the best Indian players in 2017, Kolkata clubs’ reliance on the foreign players has increased. This season is no different. Beitia, Bagan's creative linchpin, and Fran Gonzalez, the defensive midfielder who is the league's top goalscorer, have been key players in midfield. Julen Colinas was one too before his injury forced him to miss Bagan's last three games.
Gonzalez's surprise scoring streak has taken the pressure off his team. Spanish striker Salvador Chamorro did not impress the head coach and made only two substitute appearances before being replaced mid-season by Babacar Diawara of Senegal, who hasn't scored in three starts. Indian forward VP Suhair had been occupying that position before Diawara came in. Bagan sit at the top of the table without a proper strike-force. An ominous sign for rival teams.
Similarly, for East Bengal, Jaime Santos Colado, in the Beitia-like role, and Juan Mera Gonzalez, have provided the double-act in midfield. East Bengal, though, have had a foreign striker who has played all the minutes this season. Spaniard Marcos Espada has chipped in with three goals, but he needs to do better than his current goals tally if East Bengal are to remain in contention for the trophy.
Where both teams have been lacking is in defence. At least East Bengal have an excuse: They have missed their main centre-back Borja Gomez, who has been in Spain attending a family crisis. He hasn't featured in any game so far. Bagan, meanwhile, have had the pairing of Spaniard Fran Morante and Trinidad and Tobago defender Daneil Cyrus, who can fluctuate from amateurish to solid from game to game. We can at least expect goals in this derby.
As far as Indian players go, SK Sahil will likely play a key role in central midfield for Bagan. He will be up against East Bengal's trio of foreign midfielders trying to run rings around him. Asheer Akhtar, who is likely to start, will have his hands full alongside Martin Crespi in the East Bengal defence.
Bagan will have more possession of the ball. East Bengal players will try and disrupt Bagan's play as often as they could. They will likely try to make it more of a physical battle than a footballing one.
It is the perfect recipe for a cracking derby.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2020 11:37:20 IST