3rd December 2017: Mohun Bagan had inflicted a 1-0 defeat on their bitter rivals East Bengal. While East Bengal manager Khalid Jamil was furious both before and after the game, Sanjoy Sen spoke of a ‘relaxed atmosphere’ in the dressing room.
Prior to the first Kolkata derby of the season, Sony Norde was the DJ in the dressing room, playing loud music while Jamil spoke of video analysis and did his best to drill the weaknesses and strengths of the opposition into his player.
Sen mocked the East Bengal coach, derided his ‘video techniques’ and spoke about why Bagan were the superior team. In a matter of seven weeks, everything has changed when the two arch-rivals meet for a return fixture on Sunday with Jamil’s men in hunt for the title that has eluded them for over a decade now.
For starters, Sen and Norde look to have come to the end of their association with Bagan, at least for the time being.
After that derby win, it’s all been downhill for Bagan, who have only managed two wins since. Churchill Brothers were swatted aside 5-0, Shillong Lajong, Neroca and the Indian Arrows all earned draws before a loss to Chennai City at home saw Sen hand in his resignation.
Defending champions Aizawl were easily beaten but Minerva Punjab handed Sankarlal Chakraborty his first loss as Bagan manager, a 2-1 reversal at home. Sitting nine points behind leaders Minerva Punjab at the halfway mark, it’s safe to say that their hopes of winning the league is a distant possibility, mostly mathematical in nature.
Sen wasn’t the only casualty though. Striker Ansumanah Kromah’s performance and non-compatibility with the other forwards was always going to spell trouble for the Liberian and so it proved as the ex-Churchill Brothers man was released.
Norde’s injury has meant that the Bagan talisman has barely played post the derby and he is expected to go under treatment, possibly missing the rest of the season. Lebanese striker Akram Moghrabi has been signed but six points from as many outings has sealed Bagan’s league prospects this season.
“East Bengal are way ahead of us. With or without Sony, East Bengal will start favourites.” Shankarlal’s statements don’t help Bagan’s cause either.
Khalid Jamil, on the other hand, will know that a win will put them level on points with leaders Minerva, having played two games more.
East Bengal have gone unbeaten after that derby loss, a couple of draws against Aizawl and Neroca being the only blemishes against their record. Katsumi Yusa, after being overshadowed by his fellow Japanese Yuta Kinowaki in the derby, has recovered well and is the league’s top scorer with five goals.
Up front, summer recruit Jobby Justin has slowly but surely cemented his place in the team ahead of Trinidad striker Willis Plaza. The ex-Aizawl trio of Mahmoud Al-Amna, Laldanmawia Ralte and Brandon Vanlalremdika have the quality to trouble most defences and Ralte has three goals to show for it.
“Last match we lost (against Mohun Bagan), we didn’t play good. This time we have to prepare well and not take them lightly. We might start with our two strikers,” said Jamil in the pre-match press conference hinting that EB’s new forward Dudu Omagbemi or the out-of-favour Plaza could feature alongside Jobby Justin in the attack.
At the end of the day, it could all be mind games from the ex-Mumbai FC man who knows that his team cannot afford a slip-up in the title race, not right now, and not at the hands of their rivals.
Last season, the second derby of the season was crucial in the final context of the league with East Bengal’s 2-1 loss effectively snuffing out their league chances and forcing the resignation of Englishman Trevor Morgan.
Bagan would eventually finish second with EB coming third but the difference is that both the teams are not in the running this time. The Mariners would still love to play a role in the outcome of the league, especially if it meant ruining their rival’s chances.
For East Bengal, 14 years of hurt remain as a league title has proved elusive since 2004. The hiring of Jamil, the ransacking of Aizawl for their title winners; all this was done with a single goal in mind.
Pressure can do wonderful things or have the opposite effect. The unforgiving expectation, the chaos, the pent-up tension has never been higher, even for Jamil, even in Aizawl’s last game of last season when they needed a point.
For the East Bengal manager, it’s his derby and his league to lose. It has been so, right from the very start of this league. Unlike last time, he cannot afford a loss on Sunday. He simply cannot.