India football heavyweights Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will look to prove a point when they resume their traditional rivalry in the I-League, albeit, at an ‘unusual time’ in Kolkata today.
The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has emphasised that the I-League remains the top-tier competition but it’s no secret that they are a poor cousin to the lucrative Indian Super League (ISL) which has not only got the better share of players but a superior broadcast quality.
To add to their misery is the 2pm kickoff for the marquee match, which is a first for the Kolkata derby at the iconic Salt Lake Stadium since 1984.
Since the ISL mathes are being played at 5:30pm and 8:00 pmm the I-League matches have been scheduled early in the day.
The revamped Salt Lake Stadium will host the first derby of the season after a gap of 680 days since the 1-1 draw on January 23 last year.
“For a high-intensity match, it’s an unusual time. We have asked the players to get ready for the warm-up session at the ground at 1.10 pm. It means that they will have early lunch too, may be by 10 am. It could be an influencing factor,” said Mohun Bagan assistant coach Shankarlal Chakraborty.
Both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have roped in a few players from reigning champions Aizawl FC who played home matches at 2 pm.
Mohun Bagan’s Nigerian defender Eze Kingsley, who was with the I-League-winning team last season, also echoed the sentiment but added they have “to follow” the fixture drawn by the AIFF.
The I-League is struggling for the better share of players who were lured away by the lucrative ISL as Mohun Bagan would be without any India team regular.
At East Bengal, 12 of their players have switched allegiance to the ISL and only three players – Nikhil Poojary, Mohammed Rafique (who could not join ISL because of long term contracts) and Salam Ranjan Singh – have been called up for India duty recently.
For a long time, the derby has seen some usual faces like Mehtab Hossain, Jeje Lalpekhlua and Debjit Majumder who will be missed by the fans this time.
In such an unusual time, the derby will also see the Mohun Bagan’s I-League winning playmaker Katsumi Yusa in red- and-gold jersey.
An integral part of the Mohun Bagan attack for four seasons, the Japanese had helped Sanjoy Sen-coached side win the I-League in 2014-2015 and the Federation Cup the following season.
“I have played so many derbies. Every derby is a different match, but I’ll have a special feeling this time. I am so happy and excited to face Mohun Bagan. I respect them, but I’m focusing on this match as an East Bengal player,” he said.
Katsumi had scored on his East Bengal debut to give them a 2-0 lead but their defence went into a sleep mode to let Aizawl bounce back in a 2-2 draw in their I-League opener.
East Bengal defence will be under huge pressure after their blip in the last 15 minutes.
“I do not think the defence will be under pressure. They played well the other day. But we were punished for making silly mistakes. I am confident that was the last time we made those mistakes,” Katsumi said.
Mohun Bagan defender Eze would be up against his former Aizawl FC teammate Mahmoud Al Amna, who holds the key for East Bengal.
“Every derby is 50-50, but East Bengal have more mature and experienced players,” Kingsley said.
“We know what Al Amna is capable of doing. But we will be taking it as a match against East Bengal, not against any individual,” the Mohun Bagan defender added.