Calcutta: The Salt Lake Stadium might have seen the thinnest Derby crowd in its 29-year history, only 25,000 turned up, but Saturday’s I-League match between Kingfisher East Bengal and McDowell Mohun Bagan was tactically the best in recent times.
Critics would question what’s there in a barren draw, but a closer look will show that it was a superb match in terms of strategic planning and execution by both teams.
Karim Bencharifa justified why Bagan broke the bank to lure him away from Salgaocar. He motivated his players to put up a brilliant performance. “It was not a battle of unequals. With every game we are improving,” Karim said on Saturday.
The much-maligned Bagan defence did not flinch when it mattered most and the midfield also held firm against the likes of Mehtab Hussain and Penn Orji, who have been so vital in East Bengal coach Trevor James Morgan’s scheme of things for the past three years. “We just could not break them down,” Mehtab, who once again shone at the centre of the park, said.
Yes, East Bengal, the table-toppers, might have enjoyed more possession, but once in the attacking third, they just ran out of ideas. Barring a darting run down the flank by Ishfaq or an odd Baljit Sahni header missing the target, East Bengal never really got a look at the Bagan goal.
And for that, credit goes to Aiborlang Khongjee, Celestine Echezona, Denson Devadas. Aiborlang and Echezona were a study in contrast but Bencharifa has managed to team them up as a very good pair of central defenders. Aiborlang first came to East Bengal some years back and left midway as he found himself lost in the Calcutta cauldron. He came back this year after a stint with Lajong, much more matured and his performance on Saturday should be his best this season.
On the other hand, Echezona, who came from Southern Samity this year, was vilified as Bagan conceded goals from right, left and centre under Santosh Kashyap. After the Moroccan took over, the Nigerian started regaining confidence and repaid the faith with a top-drawer performance. Clean tackles, brilliant anticipation and keeping a calm head, Echezona did not put a wrong foot forward.
If only match commissioner AK Mamukoya had little bit football knowledge, the Nigerian would have walked away with the Man of the Match award. Instead, it went to Shilton Paul which left even some Bagan players surprised.
And then there was Denson Devadas. Playing in front of the back-four, Denson did not give Penn even an inch. Every time Penn tried to weave through, Denson was there to stifle him. Denson’s confident approach also allowed the back-four to play their normal game.
Having started with three frontliners — Okolie Odafe, Tolgay Ozebe and Manish Bharghav — Karim’s instruction was that there should not be a yawning chasm between the midfield and the defence. And his boys followed it to the T. It was only in the 78th minute that Bagan switched to 4-5-1 with Quinton Jacobs coming in place of Tolgay.
If Bagan were tactically well-prepared, East Bengal showed the swagger of a champion. At least till the attacking third. Such is the confidence of this team that the defence played high up on the pitch. It was a masterstroke from Morgan which made Odafe and Tolgay struggling for space.
Within the first 30 minutes, Odafe was in an off-side position four times and Tolgay, who loves to cut in from the flanks, was by and large ineffective. Barring an out-of-the world ‘turn’ which sent Uga Okpara sprawling to the ground, Tolgay would like to forget his first Derby against the former club.
Harmanjyot Singh Khabra and Ishfaq manned the right side commendably and on the left Saumik Dey and Lalrindika Ralte also had a good day in office.
It was in the upfront that East Bengal lacked the killer punch. With no Manandeep Singh as partner, Edeh Chidi ploughed a lonely furrow. Agreed, Baljit tried his best but lack of competitive matches this season has taken the sheen out of this exceptionally talented goal-poacher.
Talking about chances, Odafe was unlucky not to find his name on the scoresheet. In the 29th minute, the Bagan captain curled in a superb free-kick but it hit the far post. Surprisingly, none of the Bagan players followed the ball.
And then, seven minutes into the second half, Odafe slipped one to Tolgay whose volley hit Okpara’s hand. Bagan appealed for a penalty, but referee Santhosh Kumar turned a blind eye. But then, there’s no point crying over spilt milk since in football, there will be days when decisions will go against and days it won’t.
As the final whistle blew, there was unusual bonhomie between the players. Tolgay walked up to the East Bengal tunnel and hugged his former teammates, Odafe and Khabra chatted freely… The ghosts of December 9 seems to have been exorcised. Or was this just one-off? February 23 will give a clearer picture.