How do you celebrate your birthday in the middle of a Kolkata derby, that storied football match that is so much more than just a game? If you are Cleiton Silva you do it with a Panenka. It didn’t end the humiliation of six successive defeats against Mohun Bagan in the Indian Super League (ISL) but 57,983 at a heaving, throbbing Salt Lake Stadium did see a new-look East Bengal.
This was a game where a Chhetri who scored in the third minute does not answer to Sunil. If Ajay Chhetri popping up between Deepak Tangri and Brendan Hamill in the third minute to stab home was a surprise, there was nothing about unexpected about Silva netting the second in the 55th minute after Armando Sadiku had equalised in the 17th. Three minutes and stoppage time remained for East Bengal to hooray when Dimitri Petratos stabbed in the equaliser.
2-2 was how the season’s first Kolkata derby in ISL ended, East Bengal getting a point and feeling like they lost two. But for the first time since they joined ISL, East Bengal were given a rousing send-off.
In the long and storied history of Mohun Bagan-East Bengal matches, there have been derbies where little happened and there was this one with early goals and injuries to two key players by the 18th minute. Anwar Ali’s return to competitive football in over three months lasted 13 minutes. The central defender left clutching his left hamstring and questions will be asked if Mohun Bagan had hurried his return. At home in Split, India head coach Igor Stimac will be hoping that it does not derail his plans for the World Cup qualifiers in March.
Carles Cuadrat will be hoping that Saul Crespo, such a vital cog in the team whose resources are not limitless like Mohun Bagan Super Giant’s, will be back in action soon. Ditto Mahesh Naorem on whom Tangri barreled into to concede the penalty.
Ali started as right-back as Antonio Lopez Habas tried to impose his ideas on a team he has taken charge recently. They were more direct focusing on Kiyan Nassiri and Sahal Abdul Samad to use the width of the park. Petratos was used behind Sadiku. Mohun Bagan also tried to soften up Naorem early through Hamill and then Subhasish Bose. It didn’t work.
Naorem had a role in the first goal, rolling the ball back and creating space for Nishu Kumar who found Chhetri. And he won fouls with the regularity of a Jack Grealish which disrupted Mohun Bagan when they were chasing the game. To say Mohun Bagan, who came into this game with three straight defeats, were gobsmacked by Chhetri’s goal would be understating the obvious. Winners of the Super Cup last Sunday, their first national trophy in 12 years, East Bengal had hit the ground running.
But proof of how much work Cuadrat still has to do lay in their not being able to make that domination count. Gradually, Mohun Bagan found their bearings and Nassiri began working the right flank. Ali’s injury got Hamill shifted to right-back and he and Nassiri were a tag team East Bengal struggled to deal with. It was Hamill’s delivery that Sadiku put away with a side-volley peeing away from Lalchungnunga. One half of the amphitheatre finally found its voice.
The roar would have hit a higher pitch had Sadiku put away a Nassiri ball that Amandeep, used as left back after Ali pulled out with Bose moving into central defence, cushioned. In a hectic game where tackles flew in and cards came out, it was the miss of the match.
Chhetri’s goal was East Bengal’s only shot on target in the first half but they too could have been leading at half-time had Vishal Kaith not left his line in time to thwart Nishu Kumar after Naorem had threaded a ball through. They forged ahead when Tangri undid all the good work of the Asian Cup by clattering into Naorem. Nandhakumar has been the beneficiary of Naorem’s vision all season and there couldn’t have been a more opportune moment to return the favour. Naorem didn’t get Nandhakumar delivery but East Bengal got a penalty. Cheekiness segued into confidence as Silva chipped down the middle.
East Bengal continued to disrupt the game and it looked like they would finally end three seasons of hurt. But Petratos, their hero of last season, turned saviour. Sahal Abdul Samad had done little of note till he found Petratos. Together, they salvaged Mohun Bagan’s night.