Indian Football

Kolkata derby is still the biggest and the most fascinating game in Indian football

Kingsley Obumneme’s first-half goal gave Mohun Bagan a fairly comfortable victory over East Bengal.

Khalid Jamil was frantic about his first Kolkata derby in the I-League. According to sources, the East Bengal manager came in at eight in the morning in order to ensure that preparations for the ‘Bara Khela’ (big game) were on point.

Contrast that with the mood in the Mohun Bagan dressing room, where disc jockey Sony Norde played music at full pitch prior to kick-off. Sanjoy Sen didn’t attempt to hide his contempt towards Jamil’s high-pressure approach.

“Coaches, they say they do video analysis. They do this. They do that. But no one can confirm what they actually do,” taking a dig at his counterpart. The two teams played exactly the same way; East Bengal were wound up, while Mohun Bagan were expressive and contained their opponents with ease.

The build-up to the match had as much to do with it as the game itself. Sen’s men were labelled as the ‘underdogs’, a deserved label based on a horrid performance against Minerva Punjab in their opening game.

Jamil’s East Bengal – or a combination of Trevor Morgan’s EB plus Jamil’s Aizawl from last season – had started well against his former team, only to capitulate and concede a late equaliser to the defending champions.

Carnival atmosphere

For all the talk of a dying league and what not, this fixture remains the stand-out game in the Indian football calendar, with the sights and sounds making for an electric atmosphere. Rivalries are great for the sport, and this one trumps them all, underscoring any number of points that a football fan could have wished for.

Giant maroon-and-green and ‘Lal Holud’ (the yellow and golds) flags were out en masse and as supporters arrived in droves via open-top trucks, videos and television couldn’t really do justice to the frenzied atmosphere surrounding this marquee duel.

If you had ever hoped to go to an Indian football match and catch a carnival, then this was the promised land for you.

Yuta Kinowaki stands out

Numerous sub-plots preceded this match; Katsumi Yusa and Eduardo Ferreira against his former team, Kingsley Obumneme against his former coach and teammates, but the man who stole the show was former Shillong Lajong midfielder Yuta Kinowaki.

The Mariners’ coach had said that the aim of his team had not been to man mark Al Amna or any other EB player, but to play according to a zonal marking system. Kinowaki was an absolute colossus in his zone, and snuffed out Al Amna’s threat single-handedly.

It wasn’t just Al Amna, any East Bengal player who came through the midfield had to contend with the tenacious Japanese who was as effective a defensive screen as any we’ve seen in yesteryears’ derbies.

If the spotlight was on Yusa before the game, Kinowaki proved that he was top Ja dog on the day as the standout moment of his match came towards the end of the first half. With Al Amna dropping deep to try and negate Yuta’s constant vigilance, the latter followed the Syrian and stole the ball off him, initiating a counter-attack from the opposition’s half.

A man of the match performance, if there ever was one.

East Bengal’s corner woes

East Bengal started out with a 4-1-4-1 formation with Willis Plaza up front, supported by Katsumi Yusa, Brandon Vanlalremdika, Laldanmawia Ralte and the mercurial Mahmoud Al Amna. Mohun Bagan played in a conservative 4-2-3-1 with Asier Dipanda Dicka flanked by Ansumana Kromah and Sony Norde.

Jamil, a first-timer out there and the messiah for India’s most expectant fanbase, was up against it from the very start against a more experienced veteran in the opposite dugout. His team never settled into the contest and truth be told, Bagan could have had two or three in the first half.

Bagan started briskly with Kromah hitting the crossbar early. The start was a surprise with the noises that had been coming out from the camp as apart from being labelled ‘underdogs’, Norde had stated that time for preparation hadn’t been enough.

Sen, bullish in his post-match conference, had gone all out to demolish the unwanted bridesmaids tag and while his team was not effective as an unit, they were still streets ahead of their opponents, who were neutralised.

When the goal came, it wasn’t a surprise. East Bengal had been frustrated, had barely mounted any attacks as Plaza continued his poor run of recent form, opting for long range strikes.

Gurwinder Singh, haranguing with the referee and booked a few moments earlier, had let the heat get to him. When the corner came in, the centre-back backed off Kingsley Obumneme, who headed it home to give his team a well-deserved lead.

It was a case of poor marking and for Jamil especially, it was a kick in the teeth as it was revealed later that EB had spent half of training day, preparing for this eventuality. The goal should not have been conceded, even as East Bengal shot themselves in the foot.

That wasn’t the end of EB’s corner woes though, as a Norde kick was touched on by Dicka, with only the post separating Sen’s men from extending their lead.

Mohun Bagan needs more work

Sen’s management is a curious case study, steady at home but nowhere near the level that the team can play at. In three years, he has stabilised the team, yet the feeling is that he is not the right man to take Bagan to the next level.

The communication between Kromah and Norde was off and the former failed to pass it to the latter, something that the whole stadium had witnessed and something Sen cannot, or rather, should not ignore any longer. They have won the I-League under Sen, but with this front three, they should be romping to the title.

An early derby win, as Sen himself reminded the media, is not an indicator of anything. Wins over their arch-rivals in previous seasons have laid the foundation but haven’t translated into trophies, the veteran painfully reminisced. This victory, like any other, merely offered Sen a little extra leg room.

Relevance of the Kolkata derby

The sport in the country is at a curious crossroads and with a prolonged merged league likely to feature the derby well into the 21st century, it is this culture that the authorities must strive to emulate or foster.

Bengal football is hardly perfect, far from it. Progress has been hard to come by, with the management of the three Kolkata clubs failing to capitalise on the power of the fanatical fanbases. The state may not have made rapid strides in terms of producing talent in the last few decades, but the passion here is for all to see. There is no replacement for organic, shout-your-lungs-out zealousness. You either have it or watch it develop slowly.

It is this fervor that casts the dice for a culture of banter, expectation and footballing quality to set in, irrespective of whether those goals are met.

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