22.1.2004, Calcutta: A draw would at least have been a moral victory for Mohun Bagan. They played their hearts out in the first half, and despite changing ends at 1-1, silly mistakes in the defence robbed the initiative and the match in the second. In the end, East Bengal’s 2-1 win in their National Football League derby at the Salt Lake Stadium looked
deserving. In the end, there was good behaviour. No post-match finger-pointing, no outburst against referee S.M. Balu of Karnataka (a few unusual decisions did happen) and it was all very refreshing, really. As the coaches met the media, probably the long lay-off that lies ahead played on their minds.
East Bengal beat arch-rivals Mohun Bagan 2-1 in their National Football League derby at the Salt Lake Stadium Thursday. While Dipankar Roy put East Bengal ahead, Ashim Biswas restored parity, before Mike Okoro got the winner.
Dipankar Roy put the league champions ahead in the 23rd minute and Ashim Biswas restored parity in the 40th. Mike Okoro headed home the winner in the 65th minute.
All the tension that the coaches predicted didn’t really seem to matter in the first half, with coach Aloke Mukherjee’s green-maroon brigade quickly getting a measure of their opponents, using excellent half-line feed and a neat passing game. Veteran Basudeb Mondal was all over, so was Rennedy Singh. Eduardo was providing excellent support to Biswas upfront, taking a good deal of load off the defence.
In the defence, too, Leonardo was excellent in interception, showing good anticipation. However, Rishi Kapoor remained a sad story.
While East Bengal’s Okoro was outstanding up the right and moving into the area of kill, the forward line, especially the famed duo of Bhaichung Bhutia and Cristiano de lima Junior was barely allowed any elbow space. The idea was to get Okoro to shovel up the feed to the forward line for a shot.
In the 12th minute Basudeb was up the middle, sending a rising centre to Eduardo on the right. East Bengal goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee made a sterling diving save of the Brazilian’s powerful left-footed volley.
Junior did try a header at the other end, but it was a rather half-hearted effort.
The goal actually came quite against the run of play, in a counter-attack of sorts, as Bhaichung received one from a melee in the rival defensive third. He passed onto Okoro on the right and the latter lifted for Dipankar. Dipankar’s right-footer from an acute angle was a tentative shot, but it took Bagan ’keeper Bilifang Narzary’s fingers and went in.
East Bengal were suddenly on the offensive from then, the Bagan defence looking pretty shaky. Okoro again pressed in, lifting one from the right to the goalmouth in the 37th minute. Bhaichung had two defenders on guard, but himself moved in late for the kill, wasting the opportunity.
The equaliser, too, came against the run of play. While it was East Bengal charging in, a misspass had Leonardo and Eduardo move up off a one-two. Leonardo’s rising centre reached the goalmouth and Biswas jumped quickly to head in brilliantly past the far post, with ’keeper Mukherjee stranded at the near.
Three minutes into the second session of play Eduardo hurt his ankle and had to be replaced by Sunil Chhetri. The result was a big loss of attacking sting in the Bagan forward line. That also pushed the defensive screen in lateral pressure, showing gaps.
Chhetri did get his chance to be in the sun when he was fed a lifting centre from the left by Rennedy, but the former, placed well, headed off target from close. Had that been scored the story of the day could well have been different.
Junior, too, disappointed in the 57th minute. A ball from the left was taken by a diving Narzary, but in the fall it spilled out and at the feet of Junior. The Brazilian was too slow to trap and turn as Harpreet Singh cleared from near the goalline.
Then came the clincher. It was a Kapoor folly that resulted in a flag-kick on the right. Alvito D’Cunha’s low shot could also have been intercepted, but it moved into the melee instead. Okoro had to barely jump before heading in.
As the teams go into a long lay-off from the National League — the national team goes into the pre-World Cup matches in Margao — East Bengal carry 21 points and Bagan 14.
“Satisfied”, wasn’t a word East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick uses often. He did just that, and then said: “I wanted to end the first leg on 20 points, my players gave me a point extra. That’s nice.” He even went onto point a deficiency in the rival attack as a relieving factor — another uncharacteristic comment (Wednesday he had refused to admit any Jose Ramirez Barreto factor in his confidence). “Of course it (Barreto not being there) made a difference. We could play freely. Barreto is always a threat, even if we have taken a good lead,” he said.
“I had told my boys to be cautious in the first half and not concede a lead. I had said we would then handle the second half. They did just that,” said Bhowmick.
Though not really saying so, Bhowmick made it clear that the title-defence now looked a distinct possibility. He said the upcoming AFC Champions League is a “big challenge and we want to keep the good work going.” He refused to say if the gap and the national team stint could in any way hamper his preparations.
Mohun Bagan coach Aloke Mukherjee’s despair was understandable. “I was handicapped with the shortage of another good attacker in the reserve bench to provide support to Ashim Biswas,” he said.
“There is little I could do about this… In the month-long gap that there will be now I will be able to shore up my defensive shortfall (and there were many Thursday, especially by Rishi Kapoor that resulted in the Okoro clincher), but I need a good foreigner in striking position. I will ask my club for this.”
Regarding the deficiencies that ’keeper Bilifang Narzary has shown, Mukherjee said he was again helpless. “Had Prasanta Dora or Imran Khan been available for this match the end scoreline would have been different,” he said. “However, I am happy that my boys did play a great game in the first half. We managed to bottle up their top two strikers, Bhaichung Bhutia and Cristiano Junior.
“That we conceded the goals was through silly defensive errors, but it is also true that they were able to score only off set-pieces,” said the coach.
Mike Okoro has gone through a lot over the past one year. From spearheading the East Bengal attack to glory in Jakarta, he came close to being suspended for his whimsical ways.
With injuries to the likes of Suley Musah and Douglas da Silva, the East Bengal authorities were forced to persist with the Nigerian ball-player, and it’s clear as broad daylight that they were not wrong.
Okoro himself believes the dark days are behind him and he is close to his best. “It’s New Year, a completely new beginning…I want to look ahead,” the Nigerian said.
Okoro was the standout man for East Bengal on Thursday in an unaccustomed position in the midfield. He was the main man behind most of the attacks and clinched the game for East Bengal in the 65th minute header.
“Things did go a little wrong late last year. But I’m happy to be back in full flight,” a visibly relaxed Okoro said.
But what was going wrong' “The concentration wasn’t there, I’m trying to get my focus back.”
But what he didn’t mention was the enormous turmoil he had gone through in his personal life. After losing his baby, he broke off with his long-time fiancée. He came back to India a completely disoriented man, and the East Bengal authorities even contemplated on providing psychiatric treatment to him.
“I want to dedicate this performance to all those who have stood by me during the rough times.”
Is this the best performance of his life'
“Don’t know, but definitely one of the most important ones of my career,” he added.
“In fact, things started falling in place from the last game against Mohammedan Sporting…I’m happy to keep the good work going.
When asked whether it was a little difficult playing in the midfield, Okoro said: “A good player has to adjust himself in every position. The coach wants me in the midfield and it’s my duty to keep delivering.”
But he agreed to the fact that Jose Ramirez Barreto’s absence was a factor. “When a player of his stature is not around, you feel more confident.” Mohun Bagan forward Ashim Biswas also harped on that point. “Had Barreto been there, I could have played a little more freely. It’s always tough to play with three markers breathing down your throat,” Biswas, Bagan’s lone scorer, said.
Three members of the Bayern Munich fan club — Michael Barth, Marcos Ross and George Berz were present at the Salt Lake Stadium to get a flavour of Indian football. “We’re travelling all around the world to watch football and are sponsored by our organisation — Red Munich,” Ross said. The group, however, didn’t sound too satisfied with the quality of football that was on offer.
East Bengal: Sangram Mukherjee, Dipankar Roy (Alvito D’Cunha, 60), Dipak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli, Subhashis Roy Chowdhury, Subhas Chakraborty, Mike Okoro, Debjit Ghosh, Sujoy Dutta (Anit Ghosh, 70), Bhaichung Bhutia (K. Kulothungan, 83), Cristiano de lima Junior.
Mohun Bagan: Bilifang Narzary, Babun Kar, Harpreet Singh, Leonardo, Rishi Kapoor (Lolendra Singh, 83), Mehtab Hossain, Basudeb Mondal, Rocus Lamare, Rennedy Singh, Eduardo (Sunil Chhetri, 48), Ashim Biswas.
Referee: S.M. Balu (Karnataka).