It is a pity that the Kolkata derby was played in Siliguri to make room for a bigger attendance – for the league could have probably done with lesser people watching it. It meant that 29,067 fans (as per I-league.org) were present at the Kanchenjunga Stadium to witness Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan produce a scrappy, low-quality game which finished goalless.
The aforementioned crowd figure was nearly three times that of East Bengal’s average for the season prior to this fixture and well over four times Mohun Bagan’s number. So, the switch of venue served its purpose well. The match though? That did not live up to its billing.
Avoiding defeat was the first objective
A show of nerves and a safety-first approach from both sides in the opening minutes set the tone for what was to follow. Wild clearances, misplaced passes and hurried touches quickly became the order of the day. Free-flowing football became a far-fetched dream – neither of the two teams wanted to be adventurous or appeared to have any conviction in their play.
In short, it was a typical derby. It descended into a scrap and put the prettier side of the game on the backburner. It was clear that the first objective of both the teams was to avoid defeat. This was understandable too. With champions Bengaluru FC losing a lot of ground, the title race – with all due respect to Aizawl FC – appears to be a two-horse one at the moment.
Thus, considering that the two Kolkata teams were on level-pegging in the standings (Bagan three points behind but having played a game less), avoiding defeat to your only direct rival became the foremost goal. Had there been a third wheel in the picture, like BFC, to lose ground to, it may have forced at least one of the two teams to be bolder.
East Bengal, however, were disappointingly meek and cautious in the first half. Coach Trevor Morgan’s side were expected to grab the early initiative since his side had an in-form attack and were deploying the same back four for the fifth game in a row—the kind of stability his Sunday opponents have only been dreaming of this season.
Instead, coach Sanjay Sen’s men, with control in midfield, made all of the early running and Bagan’s central defensive pairing of Eduardo Ferreira and Anas Edathodika – partnering each other for only the second time – remained largely untested till the second half.
TP Rehenesh, in the East Bengal goal, was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers. He saved low attempts by Pritam Kotal and Souvik Chakraborty and also made a sharp save to keep Sony Norde’s corner from creeping into goal.
Surprisingly it was Mohun Bagan who were on the charge in the first half
Stopping opponents and maintaining shape took precedence over creativity. Both defences sat deeper than usual, wary of the spaces they leave behind – the paces which both sides have exploited several times this season. The full-backs too curbed their offensive instincts.
East Bengal right-back Rahul Bheke was largely preoccupied with keeping Norde at bay. He did so with great success. Mariners left-back Subhasish Bose, a major weapon in attack this campaign, rarely ventured forward in support of Norde, presumably in fear of Willis Plaza and Robin Singh, the two opposition forwards, exploiting the space he leaves behind.(Plaza and Singh had done the same with great results against BFC earlier in the season.)
This match cried out for individual brilliance to settle matters but none of the candidates could break the shackles. Bagan forward Jeje Lalpekhlua continued his poor derby form – he is yet to ever score in this fixture. He was largely anonymous before being substituted in favour of Balwant Singh late on in the game. His strike partner Darryl Duffy’s link-up play was effective but the goal-poaching Scot did not find himself at the end of a single decent chance.
Both Katsumi Yusa and Norde threatened to make things happen for the visitors but could not find the end product. The Haitian winger was lively in patches but was the subject of special attention from the opponents. He was always double-teamed or triple-teamed in possession. Without Bose’s overlapping runs to distract his markers, Norde found little space to run into.
A second-half resurgence, but still no goals
At least East Bengal came out more positive in the second half and were willing to make better use of the ball. If the first half belonged to the “away” side, the second belonged to the “hosts”.
Playmaker Wedson Anselme, bypassed for most of the first forty-five, was more involved in the second as he drove his team forward. Had the Haitian not miscontrolled a sensational long pass by Lalrindika Ralte, he would have probably scored.
Plaza too dropped deeper to see more of the ball and to run at the opposition players. Earlier in the season, Morgan had mentioned the need for Plaza to find spaces where he could isolate defenders. But the Bagan defence offered him none whatsoever.
Barring one attack in the first half, which ended with Plaza shooting meekly at goal, the rather prolific Anselme-Plaza combination, with 10 goals between them, wasn’t allowed to flourish.
The best, and only clear-cut, chance of the entire match fell to Plaza – an attack which aptly enough originated from Gurwinder Singh’s ridiculously purposeless clearance from the back. Eduardo misjudged the bounce of Robin Singh’s headed flick-on which allowed Plaza in on goal. But the Trinidad and Tobago forward, a mercurial talent who has a tendency of missing plenty of chances, shot straight at ‘keeper Debjit Majumder from close range.