10 April 2001, Calcutta: The frontrunners in the fifth National Football League stay that way, the lead remaining at three points. Twice champions Mohun Bagan, barring a miracle, will have to concentrate on securing the runners-up slot.
That was the outcome of the insipid, goalless tussle that the two premier teams of the country engaged in at the Salt Lake Stadium this afternoon.
Nobody in the 50,000-odd turnout expected good football. They did not get any. However, on a hot, humid afternoon East Bengal spent a great deal of energy in early attacks, and though they fell back a good deal in the second half, a lack of feed and understanding in the Bagan attack line prevented the holders from wresting the initiative.
Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya had probably not made calculations for the surge of East Bengal attacks that came off the kick-off. He had probably expected a more tentative start, a decent option in any of these tension-prone ‘big’ matches.
Dipendu Biswas probably tried to dispel the general fear of his loss of form with some unusual exuberance, so to say. Had such initiatives been accompanied by some activity of the grey cells, things would have been better for the red-gold title aspirants.
Early worries were in the Bagan defence being breached too often. It was not just that the defence was under pressure, it was the cascading effect of the absence of any player of the calibre of Basudeb Mondal in the half line that allowed infiltrators through. Basudeb sat the match out with two bookings, and the Bagan half line looked creaky weak.
The first real danger came in the eighth minute when a 25-yard pile-driver off Chandan Das came off the Bagan crosspiece. Five minutes later, Suley Musah pushed into the Bagan box, dribbled past two defenders, but failed to keep his head in the end and let go a weak grounder that ’keeper Bivash Ghosh collected easily.
What was happening with the Bagan attack? The generally dependable Brazilian, Jose Ramierz Barreto, was feeling lonely, if not for the company of three-four East Bengal defenders always on his back. There was little feed towards this striker, and less towards Bangladeshi Alfaz Ahmed. Alfaz himself was instrumental in a couple of breakthroughs, but enjoyed no understanding with Barreto.
James Singh did advance to help out, and that was the only source of balls for the two upfront.
The policing on Barreto was a foregone conclusion. What the Bagan coach surely should have done was decide on a dummy alternative that could have taken the policemen off Barreto or decide on an alternative source of attack altogether.
The first proper Bagan move came in the 25th minute when Alfaz moved up the left and into the box. He let go an excellent centre across the goalmouth, an offering that needed one touch from any boot. There was, however, no takers from Bagan.
The refereeing was as mediocre as the match. In the 36th minute Bivash stretched to collect off an East Bengal offensive, but Dipendu, following up, slided into him. That was definitely a card-worthy foul that referee K. Sankar of Tamil Nadu decided to ignore.
By the second half, East Bengal’s enthusiasm, with its energy level, had subsided to acceptable levels. That was when Bagan managed to lope into the rival defensive third with some wingplay via James. In the 47th minute a James shot from inside the box was tipped over by Sangram Mukherjee who had a good day under the bar.
At the other end Lolendra Singh failed to outpace Dipendu, but the latter shot out in haste. But the heat and humidity was getting to the players and the pace was slackening. There was a lapse in concentration too.
That resulted in a near goal in the 57th minute when Lolendra, off a Naushad Pari pass on the left, shot at goal. The ball took a sudden deflection off Chanchal Bhattacharya’s legs and headed straight to goal. Sangram dived at the last moment to effect a fine save.
By that time, East Bengal had decided it would be a draw and were playing for it. More men were pressed into defence, with counterattacks being kept the vehicle for releasing the rising pressure.
In the midst, the refereeing fiasco again came to the fore when Bivash was collecting off an East Bengal attack. The ’keeper had bent down to collect and did not notice Dipankar Roy charging in. The latter put spike on Bivash’s back and climbed, before going down on the other side, pulling down the ’keeper with him. Again, there was no booking.
Much scrappy action signed off the match, keeping Mohun Bagan groping still.
Mohun Bagan coach Subrata Bhattacharya believes his “broken” team has been able to put up a good enough performance versus a “full compliment” East Bengal today.
He promised that he would fight “till the end” and that until the last match was played, there would be no way East Bengal coach Manoranjan Bhattacharya would be allowed a good night’s sleep.
Manoranjan agreed that it was a “big hurdle” that his team took care of at the Salt Lake Stadium today but said: “This is no reason to relax. The National League has not been won yet, and that is the big responsibility that remains.”
Manoranjan’s big worry is over three of his key players — Isiaka Awoyemi, goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee and medio Carlton Chapman. All received their second bookings today, and will be absent from the team in the next match versus Vasco in Goa on April 18.
“That will be a problem,” he agreed. “These are the small things that I mean when I say the league isn’t over yet.”
East Bengal have also to play State Bank of Travancore and FC Kochin.
He said his worry was to keep the Bagan midfield in a straightjacket. He believed that it was the Bagan strength, despite the absence of Basudeb Mondal. “I did manage that,” he said.
“The way my players performed today, I am happy. There is no question of any moral victory. It was a strategic game, and we treated it as such.”
He said he took a chance in fielding Chanchal Bhattacharya because “he has developed a good understanding with Jackson Egygopong and has big match experience”.
Subrata said he is going to wait. He said he has liked the way Bangladeshi recruit Alfaz Ahmed has performed and that there was enough scope yet to catch up and beat their rivals.
“Last time we had won with a number of matches to go. It will not happen this time. That’s it,” said the optimist.
He said that his boys could have got the issue sealed today itself had they been able to translate their second half domination into goals.
“You must consider the fact that we fought well with a broken team versus a near full strength East Bengal. That’s a good outcome.”
Mohun Bagan have a tough match, versus Salgaocar of Goa in Calcutta on April 20, and Subrata is diverting his attention to this now.
He has another Bangladeshi, Md Nakib, waiting in the wings.
MOHUN BAGAN: Bivash Ghosh; Dulal Biswas, Amouri, Hussein Mustafi, Lolendra Singh; James Singh, Jayanta Sen, Debjit Ghosh, M. Suresh (Naushad Pari, 56); Alfaz Ahmed, Jose Ramirez Barreto.
EAST BENGAL: Sangram Mukherjee; Suley Musah, Jackson Egygopong, Chanchal Bhattacharya (Ranjan Dey, 68), Falguni Dutta; Carlton Chapman (Hamza Zaheer Abbas, 61), Isiaka Awoyemi, Chandan Das, Dipankar Roy; Dipendu Biswas, Omolaja Olalekan (Bijen Singh, 76).
Referee: K. Sankar (Tamil Nadu).