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A battle of the unequals

- TABLE-TOPPERS EAST BENGAL FACE BOTTOM-PLACED BAGAN
Okolie Odafe and Tolgay Ozebe during practice, at the Mohun Bagan ground, on Friday

Calcutta: It’s a Derby with a difference. You can say a battle of unequals…

On Saturday, at the Salt Lake Stadium, for the first time in the history of Bengal’s most enduring battle, one will start as table-toppers and the other as the basement club.

While Kingfisher East Bengal are now striving for the I-League title, which has eluded them for so long, McDowell Mohun Bagan are battling hard to beat the drop. Realistically they should have been somewhere in seventh or eighth position, but were docked all the 12 points they had earned before the manic December 9 Derby and had to restart from zero points.

“It’s something I have never heard of… One on top of the table and the other at the bottom,” East Bengal’s Mehtab Hossain, sporting a new hairstyle, said with a grin.

The topper-basement equation actually has given a new dimension to Saturday’s I-League Derby. For, both will go all-out for three points. East Bengal, rejuvenated after back-to-back wins — one over Pune FC away and the other against Pailan Arrows — will obviously want to log full points as that would inch them closer towards the title. Bagan, on the other hand, will also go for three points as their backs are against the wall with five points from 14 matches.

Mehtab Hussain with Edeh Chidi, during a training session, at the East Bengal ground, on Friday. Telegraph pictures

Agreed questions on December 9 — exactly two months later both are facing each other — came thick and fast from the media to both Trevor James Morgan and Karim Bencharifa but it was no denying the fact that, that incident catapulted a dying game back into national limelight.

“Good or bad, everyone was talking about Indian football… East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry,” Syed Rahim Nabi, who was hit by a stone from the Bagan stands on December 9, said.

Nabi will be one of the key players on Saturday. The India international, who will be the left-back and left-half Snehasish Chakraborty will try to rattle the East Bengal defence from the flanks. Morgan is aware of the threat these two can pose and may start with Ishfaq Ahmed and the versatile Harmanjyot Singh Khabra on the right.

A few years back, Surkumar Singh and Nabi used to be a great pair on the right. It will be interesting to see if he can reproduce the magic with Snehasish. Also, how well Khabra complements Ishfaq will dictate the course of the match. Ishfaq generally is more comfortable to cut in from the left flank, so this is will be a test for both the Kashmiri and Khabra.

If Ishfaq and Khabra both start on the same flank, it will be interesting to see who starts on the left. Promising Lalrindinka Ralte may play or it can be Cavin Lobo. Morgan is keeping his cards close to his chest. He has asked all the registered players to report with their kit. “This is very unlike of him,” a player said.

Bagan defence has been very brittle throughout the season. So, Aiborlang Khongjee and Celestine Echezona, the two central defenders and Nirmal Chetri will have to work overtime to nullify the threat of Nigerian striker Edeh Chidi. Also the two midfielders — Denson Devadas and Manish Maithani — will have a battle on hand against Penn Orji and Mehtab Hossain.

In the beginning of the season Bagan were bragging about their two star players. Well, Okolie Odafe and Tolgay Ozebe haven’t really fired this season.

Tolgay, who had a protracted tussle with former club East Bengal, will be playing his first Derby in Mohun Bagan colours. So, the pressure on him will be huge. Every touch of his will be jeered by the same fans who used to chant his name the same time last year. Surely a change in colour can change so many things in football!

The Derby prelude for Odafe has not been that good. By his own admission, it’s awful.

Reason? After Friday’s practice session at the club ground, the Bagan captain found that he had lost one of his diamond studs. One hopes his team doesn’t meet the same fate.

But the date ninth has been lucky for East Bengal. They have never lost against Bagan in Calcutta on ninth. Flip through the history pages if you have any doubt.