|East Bengal captain Mehtab Hussain and coach Armando Colaco with their Mohun Bagan counterparts Okolie Odafe and Karim Bencharifa at a media conference, at the Bagan tent, on Friday. A Telegraph picture
Calcutta: If December 9, 2012 was a blot in the history of the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan Derbies, Friday seemed to mark a new beginning in the relations between the two clubs.
For the first time, the clubs held a joint press conference where hosts Bagan welcomed their arch-rivals with rose bouquets. While Bagan coach Karim Bencharifa presented his counterpart Armando Colaco with a bouquet, Bagan captain Okolie Odafe offered one to East Bengal skipper Mehtab Hussain. But however friendly the pre-match atmosphere seemed, the coaches made it clear that not even an inch would be yielded on the ground without a fight.
Armando insists he isn’t under pressure to deliver in Sunday’s Derby. “I’m not under any pressure and I’m not trying to put any pressure on the boys either… I want them to enjoy the game… We want to play in the right spirit. But then, we will ensure that we fight till the end and not give any space to the opposition,” said Armando.
Karim took a pragmatic view in analysing his team’s chances. “Had this Derby been held two-three months ago, when East Bengal were playing in the AFC Cup, nobody would have given us a chance. We started the I-League very poorly… But we showed a lot of character and have made a great comeback. The boys have improved a lot and their body language has changed. The boys are confident and we are approaching the match with a positive mindset.
“At the moment, I would say that defence is our strength… We are looking really solid in defence. The team is actually playing as a unit and that is very important,” said Karim.
For Bagan, a lot will depend on Odafe’s performance. The Nigerian, who will be making his first I-League appearance this season, was confident about rising to the occasion. “The supporters are expecting me to score goals and hopefully, by the grace of god, I will fire on Sunday,” said Odafe.
Armando is aware of the Odafe threat. “He is coming out of an injury and will be hungry for goals. So we need to defend well.”
Having started the season on a high, qualifying for the AFC Cup semis, East Bengal look a little lost at the moment. Now, with Armando — the most successful coach in Indian football — at the helm, they can afford to dream big.
Asked whether East Bengal are in an advantageous position, Armando said: “In a Derby, there isn’t any advantage or disadvantage… Even a lesser-known player has the ability to stun the opponent. So you need to brace yourself for all sorts of challenges.”
Karim says it will be a new Derby for him. “I have been part of many a Derby… But, in a way, it will be a new Derby for me with a lot of youngsters in my squad.”
East Bengal’s Mehtab, on the other hand, says he is treating the Derby as any other match. “It is not a new Derby for me. This is just another match for me. After playing in the international friendlies (against Philippines and Nepal), I’m a bit tired… That’s the only concern. Otherwise, whether I am playing a match against George Telegraph or Salgaocar or playing for India, I always give my 100 per cent… On Sunday, too, I will give my best.”
Odafe has already requested the referee, Pratap Singh, to keep a tight leash on the game. “An East Bengal-Mohun Bagan Derby is always big… So you need to have a good referee. He needs to control the game and give the right decisions,” said Odafe.