25.4.2004, Calcutta: East Bengal’s 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 Biswas’s 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 Bengal’s 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 Bagan’s 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 — 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 D’Cunha, 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 Ashim’s goal suddenly painted the landscape in a different colour. It was born off Rennedy’s famous left-foot and when Mehtab sold a dummy with his captain’s 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 Mukherjee’s 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 Bengal’s nerve and ambition and they responded to it in style. Mohun Bagan’s gradual retreat to their area, aiming to protect Ashim’s 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 Bagan’s 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 Douglas’ 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.
Junior’s 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 didn’t 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 Brothers’ Yusif Yakubu.
Junior’s 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.
“Mohun Bagan were ultra-defensive throughout the match. They were only heavily intent on holding us by any means. By doing so, they sometimes looked like a lower-grade first division team, playing against bigger opponents… it happens in para football,” Bhowmick commented in the post-match press conference.
Mohun Bagan technical director Subrata Bhattacharya, however, reasoned his strategy was influenced by his wards’ strength. “We played according to our strengths and weaknesses. Had I won the match, I could have also said a few things in similar lines,” he shot back.
“East Bengal definitely played better and were deserved winners. But I don’t think we’ve played para football and they something European. Then, why didn’t they win the match 10-0' Why the very same players (of East Bengal) conceded five goals against a team like Oman'” Bhattacharya pointed out.
He, though, admitted Rennedy Singh’s exit from the field (after his red-card, along with East Bengal’s Surkumar Singh through a fight) was a “huge blow” to his team. He also was critical of the physical ability of his boys, with a hidden allusion to the team under coach Aloke Mukherjee, who has stopped attending practice since the technical director’s induction.
“To me, the physical strengths of the teams made all the difference. I fielded Abhay Kumar in a key position (in defence). But he became tired afterwards and later I came to know he hadn’t had practice for the last 10 months at all. Abhay’s fatigue was a setback in that I couldn’t block East Bengal’s wing play.
“I know my players remain fit for about 60-70 minutes. But If my players were physically strong, I could’ve played with some calculations,” Bhattacharya said.
“My target has got a bit tougher now, but remains the same — six points from three matches,” he added.
Bhowmick, however, gave credit to Bhattacharya, saying the Mohun Bagan technical director “had done what he could with his resources”.
“But I’ve not seen any fight in them. What they were doing was simple — defending deep and clearing the balls high and long. And we conceded the goal in one such moves,” observed Bhowmick.
“In the first-half, my boys failed to explore the gaps in Mohun Bagan defence. We made some changes and rectified our mistakes thereafter and succeeded,” he added.
Incidentally, Ashim Biswas, often criticised for his lack of goal-scoring moments in the NFL, has now hit the target in the last three meetings between the arch-rivals. His team, though, lost on all occasions.
“It’s tragedy… I can’t explain it. Whenever I scored against them, my team lost,” lamented Mohun Bagan’s star.
“The job is now cut out for all of us…. We’ve to stay out of relegation,” he said.
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.