It was debatable from East Bengal’s point of view, but delightful from Mohun Bagan’s. Okolie Odafa, the most expensive player in Indian club football,
gave Mohun Bagan a precious gift, converting a first-half penalty to set up a 1-0 win over East Bengal in a high-voltage I-League Kolkata derby at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday.
The three points from the match helped the green and maroons consolidate their position in the league table. They now have 15 points, three fewer than leaders Dempo SC after six rounds, while East Bengal slipped to the sixth position with 10.
But mere statistics don’t really matter in a rivalry between the two sides where bad blood is known to spill on to the turf. Sunday’s encounter, the 299th between the arch-rivals, may have been low on content, but not devoid of drama.
A 19-minute stoppage following a power cut, histrionics by players from both ends, some questionable decisions by referee Pratap Singh. The talking point, of course, was the controversial goal in the 21st minute, which helped Mohun Bagan end Trevor Morgan’s five-match unbeaten run in derbies and left a bitter taste in East Bengal’s mouth.
Uga Okpara appeared to have cleared the ball while challenging Bagan striker Sunil Chhetri from behind, following a nice through pass by Odafa. Down went Chhetri inside the box, prompting the referee to point to the dreaded spot.
East Bengal players vehemently protested the decision, but it was all in vain as Okpara was booked and Odafa stepped up to calmly convert the penalty to send the green and maroon fans in a jam-packed Salt Lake Stadium into a state of ecstasy.
The game followed a pattern after that: East Bengal took charge and hogged possession, but Mohun Bagan refused to submit and ended up having the last laugh.
In a way, it was a tactical victory for Mohun Bagan technical director Subrata Bhattacharya over Morgan. Bhattacharya made all the right moves in his first ‘big’ match since his ‘return to roots’. It was clear from the confidence displayed by the Bagan players on the pitch that Bhattacharya and coach Prasanta Banerjee have been able to instill a sense of self-belief in the green and maroon ranks that was missing during Steve Darby’s brief reign.
Morgan did his best to reorganise his line-up in the absence of key midfielder Mehtab Hossain and the lethal Tolgay Ozbey, but he was handicapped by the lack of depth in the East Bengal bench.
Bhattacharya employed a strategy that was tailor-made for the occasion. On his explicit instructionsm, Bagan players sat deep in order to take the sting out of East Bengal’s early forays. It was no wonder then that his troops dug trenches and put their bodies on the line.
And with Sangram Mukherjee rising to every occasion under the bar, Bagan frustrated their opponents. Each time East Bengal moved forward or attempted to do so, there was a Mohun Bagan boot or head in the right place to sucpper the move.
But in Bhattacharya’s default setting, there was something more. Having positioned Odafa at the tip of an attacking trident with Chhetri and Jose Ramirez Barreto at the base, the formation was perfect as it gave Bagan the numbers in midfield to screen their wobbly defence.
East Bengal, thus, were all possession but no penetration. East Bengal did go all-out after the break in search of the equaliser. Robin Singh and substitute Baljit Sahni were denied in quick succession by two breathtaking interceptions by Sangram while Alan Gow failed to convince the referee to award a penalty after going down under a challenge from Bagan’s new-recruit Australian defender Daniel Zeleny.
If Bagan managed to ride out the East Bengal storm, it was was because of a stand-out performance of Sangram, who deservedly won the Man-of-the-Match award. The evergreen Barreto toiled tirelessly. He was behind every Bagan barricade to deny East Bengal, straining every fibre in his ageing body.
He cleared the ball from Robin’s feet inside his own box and was even booked for pulling down Gow from behind. Sadly, Morgan team didn’t have anyone of Barreto’s calibre. Odafa may have hogged the limelight on his derby debut, but it was Barreto who was the unsung hero.
Source – Times of India, Kolkata