| Bhaichung exults after scoring the equaliser for East Bengal in the derby match versus Mohun Bagan at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday. Picture by Amit Datta
Calcutta: East Bengalís pride and character first woke up to an early Mohun Bagan goal, then shot back at the setback with a devouring rage and finally put things into perspective, returning 2-1 winners over their arch-rivals in the high-voltage National Football League (NFL) clash at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday.
Bhaichung Bhutia and Cristiano Junior scored in a span of six minutes in the second half to turn Ashim Biswasís 15th-minute goal into insignificance as East Bengal inched closer to the title with 43 points after 19 matches and Mohun Bagan were left sniffing at the relegation threat on 19. That was then, East Bengalís 100th win over Mohun Bagan in domestic tournaments. They are now just a win away from retaining the title
The beauty of the goals as well as of the game in its entirety, however, could not escape phases of its ugly face as well, when Mohun Bagan captain Rennedy Singh and East Bengal right-back Surkumar Singh were marched out of the game following a fight between them in the 62nd minute. Then, in closing minutes, Mohun Baganís Leonardo da Almeida and Mehtab Hossain and East Bengal substitute Dipankar Roy were engaged in another bout of altercation, which ended up with the latter two being lucky to receive just yellow cards.
Lolendra Singh and Leonardo as well as Mahesh Gawli and Douglas da Silva were also booked in a match which saw as much nicety of play as heated arguments among players.
The match could also be interpreted in accordance with an anticipated script ó Mohun Bagan defending deep and desperate against the adventurous red-and-gold brigade. In the 10th minute, Mike Okoro, ever unflagging and energetic, crossed to the address of an onrushing Alvito DíCunha, whose first-time shot was ably saved by Prasanta Dora. Back came another attack, this time Junior header went over the bar.
It seemed an East Bengal surge all along but Ashimís goal suddenly painted the landscape in a different colour. It was born off Rennedyís famous left-foot and when Mehtab sold a dummy with his captainís cross, Dipak Mondal completely failed to read the bounce of the ball and Ashim, waiting behind, gleefully accepted the offer and volleyed home low to Sangram Mukherjeeís right hand.
Subhas Bhowmick immediately carried out a reshuffle in the field, replacing Debjit Ghosh with Dipankar, who switched to the right wing. It now looked a test of East Bengalís nerve and ambition and they responded to it in style. Mohun Baganís gradual retreat to their area, aiming to protect Ashimís gift, allowed the opponents operating in an almost unchallenged middle-third. Crosses from both sides started coming thick and fast into the Mohun Bagan box.
Subrata Bhattacharya, Mohun Baganís new technical director, applied double covering for Bhaichung and Junior with Palash Karmakar giving special attention to the prolific Brazilian striker. In another interesting move, Basudeb Mondal was turned into a spoiler instead of a creator, keeping a close tab on Douglasí operation in the centre. The green-and-maroon team, in a new jersey, suddenly looked like an invigorated bunch, as if with a cause to fight till last breath. They chased every ball and every rival in group, leaving the fancied East Bengal attackers helpless in opening up the defence.
Juniorís high-volley rocked the crossbar in the 35th minute, but Mohun Bagan otherwise managed to hold their fort intact.
But East Bengal, like earlier occasions, came back firing on all cylinders in the second half. Bhaichung failed to push the ball in from handshaking distance with Prasanta in the 51st minute, but it didnít cost his team much as the equaliser came within a couple of minutes. Shylo Malsawmtluanga fed Douglas in the middle and the latter released it for fellow countrymate Junior on the right. Junior outran marker Palash and took a low volley, which came into play after hitting the side-post. Bhaichung, the predator, followed the ball and finished it at the other post.
The winner appeared always on the cards as Mohun Bagan fell back heavily into their area. Dipankar passed to Alvito near the penalty arc and the latter quickly released the ball for Junior on the left. As the Brazilian sprinted forward, came in his way the legs of Leonardo.
The referee Walter Pereira pointed to the spot-kick and Junior converted to take his NFL tally to 13, one behind Churchill Brothersí Yusif Yakubu.
Juniorís goal might have taken the steam out of Mohun Bagan fight and it was reflected in the way Rennedy kicked Surkumar from behind. Bhaichung quickly intervened and tried to pacify the rival captain. Surkumar turned back, took his attacker by the scruff of his neck. The duo fell into ground fighting and then stood up, only to head off the field in shame.
East Bengal: Sangram Mukherjee; Debjit Ghosh (Dipankar Roy, 24), Mahesh Gawli, Dipak Mondal; Surkumar Singh, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, Douglas D'Silva, Alvito D'Cunha (Surya Bikash Chakraborty, 80), Mike Okoro; Cristiano Junior, Bhaichung Bhutia (K. Kulothungan, 88).
Mohun Bagan: Prasanta Dora; Palash Karmakar, Lolendra Singh (Sunil Chhetri, 70), Leonardo da Almeida, Debkumar Sashmal; Abhay Kumar (Hardeep Gill, 86), Mehtab Hussain, Basudeb Mondal (Harpreet Singh, 59), Noel Kasak, Rennedy Singh; Ashim Biswas.
Referee: Walter Pereira.