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ISL: ATK Mohun Bagan won the Kolkata derby, but East Bengal had lost long before kick-off

If the writing on the wall was not clear enough in East Bengal's draw against Jamshedpur, it became quite highlighted in the 3-0 loss to ATK Mohun Bagan last week.

Written by Shashank Nair |
November 29, 2021 1:03:53 pm
mohun bagan east bengal 2021Mohun Bagan did not allow SCEB the breathing space to make it three out of three in their ISL exchanges. (Source: ISL)

The third iteration of the Kolkata derby in the ISL had all the makings of a beatdown for East Bengal and the oncoming song of retreat was being written even before the season began. A battle between the officials of the club and Shree Cement, a Mamata Banerjee backed sponsor, had reached its crescendo. The significant amount of money being pumped in by their sponsors came with the caveat of a few key changes. The officials saw it as a way of the sponsor clipping their wings. Through the summer of 2021, the battle raged on until compromises were made and Twitter accounts were active again. But by that time, even the hiring of a coach of the ilk of Manolo Diaz, who had once been part of the Real Madrid Castilla coaching setup, was not enough. There wasn’t enough time for a new set of players to gel together before the start of the season. If the writing on the wall was not clear enough in their draw against Jamshedpur, it became quite highlighted in the 3-0 loss last week.

In contrast to them stood the other Kolkata club. Retaining most of their best foreign players as well as a horde of current Indian internationals, Mohun Bagan worked on furthering their already burgeoning bag of talent. Hugo Boumous was swiftly extricated from Mumbai City FC for a record fee. Joni Kouko’s disappointment at being knocked out of the Euro 2020 was sweetened by the Kolkata club chasing and finally acquiring his signature. Liston Colaco, a young Goan, with the penchant to score in a spectacular manner, was hauled in as well. Bagan had a team alright.

All that was now required was for their serial winner of a coach in Antonio Habas to lead this group. A criticism of him has been the ‘one goal and shut shop’ approach that can and has been tedious to watch. Before the Kolkata derby, Habas once again showed just how much of the Iberian DNA of possession-based football had skipped his operating system. “You need not exactly have ball possession because it is not that if you have possession, you win the match. It is impossible. 18 per cent of goals scored are from counter-attacks, five-six per cent are from set-pieces, and 10-12 per cent with possession. It is very difficult to bet on this system (possessional). When the opposition is sitting deep, you play possession football but when the opponent is leaving spaces, I have to use the space. The opponent is different and the conditions are different, so why play the same way. I don’t understand,” said Habas in the pre-match press conference.

And yet, this Bagan is not the same team of last year. Granted, over the first two games, the poor possession stats continued, but the ability to find a way to work with space has been the biggest flex of this team on their way to scoring seven goals in 180 minutes. A major part of that transformation has been Boumous. Running deep into the heart of a midfield, the French-Moroccan player likes to pick the ball and carry it into opposing teams’ most vulnerable spaces. Once there, he has the technical ability to find a way to create or score. On both those endeavours, he was supported by Bagan’s striker Roy Krishna. A two-time leading goalscorer in the ISL, Krishna now has a player on parallel levels of talent alongside him. Five of the seven goals scored by their team has come through the duo being involved.

East Bengal never stood a chance.

Defeated champions

Last season Hyderabad and their motley group of young Indian players took the league by surprise. The gates to the final playoff spot were cruelly shut on their faces on the final day of the season. Their response this week was to immediately fell the defending champions Mumbai City FC 3-1.

Mumbai lost their long-time goalkeeper in Amrinder Singh, a midfielder of the ilk of Boumous and as if that wasn’t enough, Sergio Lobera was hauled off by City Football Group to a different assignment and in came Des Buckingham. The talk from the coach through the beginning of the season has been to continue Lobera’s work but he is no longer working with the same abundance of riches that his predecessor enjoyed.

Last season Mumbai had Adam le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche as their strikers. The luxury of being able to afford two attackers who on any given day could be top goalscorers for their club was let go of this season when Ogbeche was sold off to Hyderabad. Having sat on the Mumbai bench for most of last season, despite his obvious goal-scoring talent, Ogbeche struck the telling second goal against his former club to lift Hyderabad to a win.

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