| Sunil Chhetri (left) nods in Mohun Bagan’s first goal in their AFC Champions League tie vs Valencia at Salt Lake Stadium Wednesday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta, Oct. 9: Morning does not always show the day.
Mohun Bagan began their AFC Champions League second-round qualifying battle on home front with a bang Wednesday. A comfortable 2-0 lead within 46 minutes — the wood coming in the way of a more lustrous tally no less than five times — and a freewheeling run in the penetrative zone left everybody wondering whether the game as a contest would be over well before 90 minutes.
Then, the paradigm shift took place. And make no mistake, it was no black magic or fanditha, but a good reading of the game which prevailed in the end, as Valencia rallied back in stunning style to force a 2-2 draw. The precious away goals could come in very handy in the October 23 return-leg tie in Maldives.
It all started in an explosive second half when George Ekeh joined Sunil Chhetri (who earlier had headed home a 23rd-minute Lolendra Singh free-kick) in the scorers’ list for Mohun Bagan. The Nigerian pounced on one of those eventful woodwork-struck ricochets inside the box.
But the joy and authority in the scoreline underwent a complete metamorphosis within a couple of minutes. First came the warning through Mohammed Nazim’s goal from a well-exercised free-kick and then the shock (nine minutes later) on the back of Maldives international Ali Ashfag.
The ultimate leveller, ironically, also had its origin in one of the three Jose Ramirez Barreto hits which came off the frame. Ashfag chanced upon the ball on the left and his speed caught the Bagan backline napping. Dulal Biswas was outpaced and with Yakubu and Satish Bharti in no position to challenge him, the 20-year old beat Rajat Ghosh Dastidar with a thumping strike to the near post.
“I am very happy with the outcome. When I saw Barreto’s third-minute shot coming off the post, I knew it was going to be our day,” Valencia’s Slovak coach Rastislav Vincur said. “In the Maldives, teams play an open game. So I believed we had a chance even after we were down by two goals.
“I knew Mohun Bagan would be looking for a big win, so I told my boys to use the counter-attacks in an effective way. It paid off in the end,” a smiling Vincur added.
His Mohun Bagan counterpart Subrata Bhattacharya, however, was putting up a brave front. “Our run in the tournament does not end here and I’m confident we can beat them in Maldives”.
Subrata expectedly put Bhaichung Bhutia and his three national squad peers in the starting line-up. A tired-looking Bhaichung followed Rennedy Singh to leave the field in the first half and the other two — Bharti and Rajat — also failed to contribute much to the team’s cause.
Subrata, however, defended his strategy. “I wanted to clinch the issue as early as possible and for that, I had to field my best team,” he said.
MOHUN BAGAN: Rajat Ghosh Dastidar; Lolendra Singh, Dulal Biswas, Satish Bharti, Rabiu Mallam Yakubu; Basudeb Mondal, Rennedy Singh (Sunil Chhetri, 21), Jayanta Sen; Jose Ramirez Barreto, George Ekeh (Amar Ganguly, 86); Bhaichung Bhutia (Sheikh Sanjib, 45).
VALENCIA: Hussain Habeeb; Mohamed Shafreen, Anwar Abdul Ghani; Ali Shiham, Mohammed Nizam, Abdulla Waheed, Ali Umar (Ismail Mahfooz, 90), Mohamed Nazim; Mohamed Hassan, Abdulla Waheed (jr); Ali Ashfag (Yusuf M. Ademola, 87).
Referee: Gyanu Raja Shrestha (Nepal).