27.2.07, Calcutta: Chima Okerie is a strong advocate of Arsene Wenger’s youth policy.
Drawing an inspiration from the young Arsenal’s show against Chelsea in the English League Cup final, the Mohun Bagan coach asked his youthful brigade — after Bhaichung Bhutia was ruled out and Jose Ramirez Barreto limped off the field inside 10 minutes — to stand up and be counted against East Bengal in their first-leg ONGC National Football League (NFL) tie on Monday.
The Lalkamal Bhowmicks and PC Lalawmpuias were truly exquisite and exceptional for Mohun Bagan at the Salt Lake Stadium. But experience had the last laugh and Saumik Dey’s 15-minute knockout punch helped East Bengal emerge 1-0 winners.
Carlos Roberto Pereira’s side is now enjoying the provisional lead with 14 points while Mohun Bagan remain rooted on seven points from as many matches.
This was a night when Mohun Bagan needed a leader to stand up to East Bengal’s challenge. They found one in Lalawmpuia. All players look up to a derby as the ideal stage to stamp their class. Tuesday’s clash of titans could’ve been a perfect script for the youngster to go into the footballing folklore in the Maidan.
Lalawmpuia conjured a compelling night with his searing run, rattling the rival defence at will to stage Mohun Bagan’s fightback almost single-handedly.
But his efforts were matched ounce by ounce by another youngster Abhra Mondal. The third-choice East Bengal custodian has mostly spent life on the bench in the season, but when an opportunity came calling, he grabbed it with both hands.
Whenever Lalawmpuia broke free and spelled danger in the East Bengal backline, Abhra turned out to be his spoilsport. The teenaged ’keeper denied the Mohun Bagan striker at least on three occasions from one-to-one situations.
No doubt, the selection of East Bengal midfielder Jayanta Sen as the Man-of-the-Match defied logic.
Panic hit the Mohun Bagan camp early when captain Barreto left the field after pulling a hamstring in the 10th minute. They appeared to have lost the plot there as midfield looked rudderless without the Brazilian creator. The wings remained unattended to, Mehtab Hussain — snatched from India’s Jordan-bound pre-Olympic qualifying squad — and Lalkamal sparkled, but it was not enough to extinguish the fires from East Bengal, who were keen on taking full advantage of the situation.
Indecision reigned supreme in the Mohun Bagan defence when they conceded the goal in the 15th minute. Favio misjudged the line of Alvito D’Cunha’s chip and sideback Manas Das and central defender Deepak Mondal were caught off guard as Izumi Arata chested the ball — though in a bit sloppy manner — inside the box. An unmarked Saumik, coming from the left side, headed in.
In a further blow to the defence, Favio also departed the field injured on the half-hour mark. In between, Deepak’s timely interception denied Ambani, Sangram Mukherjee tipped over an Edmilson volley and Saumik’s intended cross hit the post.
Alvito — who had to undergo overnight treatment to get fit for the match — could only last for 36 minutes and his replacement, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, was in line with Pereira’s push for blocking all possible escape routes for the rivals.
Just when everything seemed pre-ordained in East Bengal’s favour, Lalawmpuia gave a new twist to the plot. Inside the first 12 minutes of the second session, he pushed East Bengal completely on the backfoot. But he lacked Bhaichung’s finishing and Abhra was there to ensure the night became colourful for East Bengal.
Wenger’s Arsenal lost the match to Chelsea, so did Chima’s Mohun Bagan. However, the Nigerian and his faith in the youth provided the ultimate thrill to the drama at the Salt Lake Stadium.
“If these players are willing to learn, they can be the future of India,” Chima later said of the Lalawmpuias. Even after the loss, no body is arguing with him.
East Bengal: Abhra Mondal; Vincent Pires, Christiano Oliviera, M. Suresh, Saumik Dey; Izumi Arata, Bibiano Fernandes (Chandan Das, 64), Jayanta Sen, Alvito D’Cunha (Shylo Malsawmtluanga, 36), Edmilson (Ashim Biswas, 89), Boniface Ambani.
Mohun Bagan: Sangram Mukherjee; Deepak Mondal, Favio Cortez (Sanjeev Maria 34), Mehrajuddin Wadao, Manas Das; Chinmoy Sarkar, Lalkamal Bhowmick, Jose Ramirez Barreto (Surajit Bose, 11, Dipendu Biswas, 78), Mehtab Hussain, Suman Dutta; PC Lalawmpuia.
Referee: Dinesh Nair (Gujarat).
Man-of-the-Match: Jayanta Sen.