8 Dec 2002, Calcutta: East Bengal played to their strength and won. Mohun Bagan played with their injuries and fell further back in the Oil PSU seventh National Football League standings.
At the Salt Lake Stadium Sunday, in front of an 80,000-plus crowd, substitutes Subhasis Roy Chowdhury and Alvito D’Cunha found defensive lapses large enough to push through hasty initiatives and give East Bengal a 2-0 victory. This, off a match that champions Mohun Bagan could well have led from the first half.
A lot of things could have happened, it seemed. They didn’t, because the soccer was too poor to throw up surprises, the pace was lethargic enough to allow pre-emptive action on those attempted set-pieces, and there was this team which sincerely believes it has no fit players to fit a ‘big match’ bill. Mohun Bagan were deserving losers, if one can put it that way. In the process East Bengal are leaders now, moving to 12 points from four matches, ahead of overnight leaders Vasco (10 from five). Mohun Bagan have stayed at a lowly six points, now from five outings.
Out on a limb, you can’t expect to win in the National League. It was a gamble Mohun Bagan took, a rather foolhardy one on hindsight. Bhaichung Bhutia would have done better service to the team resting and recovering. Instead, he spent 58 minutes in the East Bengal defensive third trying to treat delicately the initiatives that were brought up by the hard-working Jose Ramirez Barreto and the occasional Rennedy Singh and Basudeb Mondal ones.
His tiptoeing efforts could have produced a goal, actually. In the 25th minute Jayanta Sen grabbed a loose pass well into rival territory. He moved in and passed to Bhaichung who cleverly tapped in back past a defender. With East Bengal goalkeeper Sandip Nandy out of charge, all Sen had to do was walk into the goal with the ball. He shot out from close instead.
It might have been a better gamble to field a couple of lesser mortals upfront, pushing Barreto back to do the digging. The team would have moved faster, and defeat would have been easier to digest.
Mohun Bagan did enjoy a degree of ball possession in the first half. They did flit around the rival goalmouth. But those were tentative times, more a trial-and-error method to a theory.
Had East Bengal’s new Brazilian recruit Gilmar da Silva Goncalves been half of what had been promised, the Bagan defence would have crumbled early, even though East Bengal’s second striker Mike Okoro seemed to have lost his way.
The problem with Bagan was that there was no strategy. Coach Subrata Bhattacharya’s staunch line has been that there can’t be one because you need “fit players to fit any plan”. That was also the attitude that allowed D’Cunha, coming in less than a minute before the break, to slowly change the face of the attack.
D’Cunha missed one in the 51st minute when he made a hash of an S. Venkatesh pass at the goalmouth. When he shot out, Bagan goalkeeper Rajat Ghosh Dastidar was way out of charge.
Venkatesh, though, had made up for any lapse at goalmouth. Time and again he tore through the rival half line and with his quick change of flank, was able to unsettle the rival defence.
In the 71st minute, a D’Cunha flag kick from the right swerved into a melee at the Bagan goalmouth. As Subhasis jumped, the ball took his shoulder and bounced into the netting.
Into injury time, Venkatesh, having overlapped again, saw his probe challenged by a defender and tapped left to D’Cunha. D’Cunha took a clean, powerful volley that left Rajat beaten hands down.
D’Cunha was declared ONGC Man of the Match and received the Rs 5,000 cheque, instituted from this match.
While East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick is experiencing a state of almost-Nirvana, his Mohun Bagan counterpart has been brushing his hide with brusque comments like “it makes no difference, there’s lot of work left yet.”
Reactions were to the latters’ 0-2 Oil PSU seventh National Football League loss at the Salt Lake Stadium Sunday. The win pushed East Bengal ahead of the field and Bhowmick says this was what gave him “peace.” For Bhattacharya, though, there was a great deal of explaining to do, a cache of soul-searching surely to follow.
“This is not the end of the league,” said Bhowmick, we were lucky to win today and we must remember that we have a very long way to go yet. I saw a great many mistakes in the team, things I need to correct soon.”
On the off-colour Mike Okoro, he said: “Yes, Okoro needs to be sharper. We need to work with him. He can play far better than this and I’m sure he will come up to it.” And he wasn’t commenting on his new Brazilian recruit Gilmar da Silva Goncalves either.
Bhattacharya threw the ball to the Media. “You are the one who suggested the use of Marlanki Sutang. He proved a flop. What do I do'” Not exactly the reaction expected of a top flight NFL club. Okay, so what about fielding Bhaichung' Did he change the course of the match' No. Did he get more hurt in the process' Probably yes. “Look, what could I have done' Do I have anybody' I tried the young ones, and the tension of the day gave them butterfly stomachs and they melted away.”
The coach added he needs Lolendra Singh, at least, to be fit now (barely recovered from the flu). He said he needs “fit players, if I have to deliver.” He said he isn’t worried because the league “is a long one”, and that Bhaichung can rest for a while now, and that Gilmar isn’t “anywhere near Jose Ramirez Barreto.” Somebody somewhere else may have asked him to compare.
Alvito D’Cunha, meanwhile, was basking in new glory. The Man of the Match said he was dedicating the award and his goal to his teammates and “to my mom and dad.” He said he was happier that he could play well.
Of the late insertion, D’Cunha said it was a plan. “The coach and I had had a talk and the coach said he needed a fresh pair of legs later in the match when the rivals were growing weaker. The strategy clicked.”
He remembered that this was his first NFL goal with the East Bengal jersey on. A memory, surely, to keep.
EAST BENGAL: Sandip Nandy, Amjad Ali Khan (Subhasis Roy Chowdhury, 28), Arun Malhotra, Dipak Mondal, Douglas de Silva, Sasthi Duley, S. Venkatesh, Anit Ghosh (Chandan Das, 83), K. Kulothungan (Alvito D’Cunha, 45), Gilmar de Silva Goncalves, Mike Okoro.
MOHUN BAGAN: Rajat Ghosh Dastidar, Dulal Biswas, Isa Musa Eroje, Satish Bharti, Palash Karmakar, Jayanta Sen, Basudeb Mondal, Kajal Bhattacharya, Rennedy Singh (Sunil Chhetri, 74), Jose Ramirez barreto, Bhaichung Bhutia (Marlanki Sutang, 59).
Referee: K. Shankar (Tamil Nadu)