They are fifth and eighth in the standings which are uneven because all other teams have played more. Neither has a win in their last three games of the Indian Super League (ISL). But a change in name notwithstanding, Mohun Bagan Super Giant are ISL champions and East Bengal have won the Super Cup. Few clubs in Asia are as old, none in India has won as much so an ordinary 2023-24 ISL can be on the margins of a conversation on the Kolkata derby. Especially, if it is the league’s first.
“Even before the Super Cup final, our fans were speaking about the derby,” said Cleiton Silva, East Bengal’s attacking totem and captain. Silva, who will turn 37 on Saturday, said he tries to lead by example. With five goals in ISL and the golden boot in the Super Cup where he scored five in five games, he is walking the talk.
That central defender Anwar Ali could return for Mohun Bagan and their new-old coach Antonio Lopez Habas mentioning at Friday’s press conferences that he has never lost to East Bengal adds spice to the contest between a team recharged and one attempting a reset. East Bengal will miss key midfielder Souvik Chakrabari, who is suspended, and go into this 11th round game on the back of three barren draws but they lead the season’s head-to-head 2-1.
In ISL that count is 6-0 in the favour of Mohun Bagan, then prefixed by ATK. Mohun Bagan are also eight points in front. But, ahead of what he referred to as the ‘boro match (big match) as they do in Kolkata, Carles Cuadrat could have been speaking for every East Bengal fan when he said that they can now be “face to face with supporters of the other club and tell them that, I am a champion.”
“The players have the feeling that, for the first time in more than three years, things are quite equal,” said the East Bengal coach. That East Bengal have momentum was acknowledged by Mohun Bagan captain Subhasish Bose but his team would be fresher, said the defender, one of the bright spots in the Asian Cup campaign. And that players are returning from injury.
Mohun Bagan began ISL this term with six wins and a draw in their first seven games but lost the last three. “The second half of the ISL is an opportunity for us to turn around. Mohun Bagan have it in their character to do that,” said Bose.
Having replaced Juan Ferrando with Habas, reversing what they did in 2021-22, Mohun Bagan will be hoping Bose is right. With two titles, Habas is the most successful coach in ISL but he taking charge mid-season. “It is more difficult because you want to change a lot of things,” he said before the first game of his third stint in Kolkata. Whether Habas can enhance his reputation will depend on his ability to deliver with a roster he didn’t choose.