ISL 2020-21, Kolkata Derby Preview: ATK Mohun Bagan favourites as storied rivalry comes to the league
The Kolkata Derby adds the century-old rivalry to ISL's cabinet, enriching the competition with its history.
A usual Kolkata Derby day in the City of Joy is as much a tussle between fans and a different range of colours as it's about the high-intensity football on the pitch.
If you have been lucky enough to be in Kolkata for the big match, then it's impossible that trucks full of ardent Mohun Bagan or East Bengal supporters making their way to the stadium would have escaped you. These fans, come over from different parts of the city, and sometimes even from outside of it. These Derby addicts, they come in flaunting the colours of their teams — green and maroon or red and yellow — chanting their slogans and jeering the opposite set of fans.
In fact, you can feel the tension in the city from the eve of the boro match, at times, the neighbourhoods are painted in club colours, depending on their allegiances. Almost a hundred years old, the first-ever Kolkata Derby took place on 8 August 1921 in the Coochbehar Cup, the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry is not a product of their on-field clashes but a representation of the conflict between different cultures of Bengal.
If you are a Ghotis, historically belonging to the western part of the old undivided Bengal, now the state of West Bengal, you support Mohun Bagan. A 'Bangal' is someone who traces back his/her identity to the eastern part, now Bangladesh, and would support East Bengal. Those lines and distinctions have blurred over the time, you now find supporters of both clubs in the same family, but the essence of the rivalry lives on. The desire to see the opposition team lose and their fans suffer is as strong as ever.
And that discord and friction have made the Kolkata Derby one of the most storied rivalries in the world. The century-old rivalry would now be played out in the Indian Super League (ISL). Mohun Bagan, earlier this year, merged with last year's ISL champions ATK to establish ATK Mohun Bagan (ATK MB) as they entered the top-flight league. This put a question mark on the fate of the Kolkata Derby but at the last minute, East Bengal (EB) also joined the ISL after Shree Cements came on board as an investor.
The usual frenzy in the stands would be missing when ATK MB take on East Bengal at the Tilak Maidan on Friday for the first-ever Kolkata Derby of ISL as the league is being played behind closed doors but that wouldn't dampen the significance of the occasion.
The ISL, from the very beginning, attracted deep-pocketed investors and some of the most revered footballing talents, but the entry of ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal brings along with itself invaluable legacy and history to the competition after all these two clubs have been the backbone of Indian football for decades.
The Derby is the coming together of these two footballing giants, which without a doubt would be the most-watched of all ISL matches, and it's only natural that none of the teams would want to lose on the night, but you can't deny that ATK MB start as favourites.
The squad for the Antonio Habas side is almost the same as that of the ATK which won the league last season and that is a massive advantage over Robbie Fowler's East Bengal who come in with a completely revamped contingent.
ATK MB secured a crucial win in their first match of the season, against Kerala Blasters with the prolific Fijian striker Roy Krishna scoring the only goal of the match. Habas' pragmatic style of playing was imprinted over ATK MB's performance in their first-ever competitive game. Playing in the 3-5-2 formation, the focus was on keeping a clean sheet while trying to create scoring opportunities on the counter-attack.
The plan worked for them as they secured a 1-0 win last Friday but the football on offer was largely scrappy. The almost non-existent pre-season is having an impact on teams' early performances this season and the same makes it impossible to predict what kind of ATK MB would turn up on the Derby day but the earlier ISL experience and stability in the team definitely gives them an edge.
"The Derby is a special match and it's important for me because I know what's the intensity in Kolkata and what it means to the supporters," Habas said ahead of the match, acknowledging the significance of the occasion. "We have to respect and try and bring joy to our supporters in Kolkata."
One major worry for them, however, is the absence of left wing-back Michael Soosairaj. Known for his creativity and dribbling skills, Soosairaj hobbled off the pitch against Blasters after injuring his knee. Reports suggest that he has suffered an ACL injury and could miss the whole season. That's certainly a massive blow for the club as Soosairaj played a big role in ATK's title win last year. Subhasish Bose is expected to fill in for him.
On the other hand, East Bengal were only inducted into the league two months back. Fowler was only appointed as the head coach on 9 October. With the team making a quick jump from I-League to ISL, the team management hardly had any time to build the squad and then cohesiveness within that squad.
"It's an incredibly tough game for us to start. We are massively behind all the teams in terms of preparations. Massively behind in terms of playing games. ATKMB have played a game and we haven't, so we are coming into the season relatively new," said Fowler ahead of the Derby.
"No one has a clue how we are going to play, what type of team we are. It's up to us now to go out there and set a bit of a marker. We can do that. Because we got a great work ethic, a great team spirit. The players' attitudes are absolutely first class. We can't wait to get started. It's been a long time. We have done all the work. We have come so far and we are ready."
There's obviously little clue about how ISL debutants EB, who would be playing their first match of the season on Friday, would set up this season but going by how Fowler managed Brisbane Roar last season in the A-League, we can expect them to follow the safety-first principle.
In 26 games, Brisbane only conceded 28 goals, playing a counter-attacking style of football which focussed on closing down opponents and spaces. They also managed just 29 goals.
This season, they look a bit weak up front. Jeje Lalpekhlua is returning after a long injury layoff and Balwant Singh has struggled to regain his scoring touch of late. The same could be said for Welsh forward Aaron Amadi-Holloway.
EB would rely heavily on former Norwich City winger Anthony Pilkington to create scoring opportunities as he comes in with a reputation of having pace and wide range of passing. He will be supported by left-sided midfielder Jacques Maghoma, while defensive midfielder Matti Steinmann would be expected to assist the defenders.
Skipper Daniel Fox and Australian Scott Neville would form the fulcrum of that defensive line. They also have veteran Indian players like Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Mohammed Rafique and CK Vineeth in their ranks but the lack of an exciting young Indian talent is another cause of concern.
On balance, ATK Mohun Bagan have a clear edge over their rivals East Bengal but we know that form and other factors go out of the window in a Derby. When you have a century-old rivalry, tempers are bound to flare in a high-pressure situation and the team which keeps its composure and execute the game plan to perfection have the best chance to win. A victory on the night is non-negotiable for the fans of the respective teams, neutrals just hope for a great game of football.
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