DEFENDING CHAMPIONS Mohun Bagan continued their winning form as they overcame Salgaocar 4-2 at Barasat today, going back to the top of the table.
Sanjay Sen was eager to see most of his players in action ahead of next Saturday's Kolkata Derby. Hence, the side that beat Aizawl FC saw 4 changes to it. Debjit Majumder replaced Shilton in goal. New signings Luciano Sabrosa and Pronay Halder came into the squad. Azharuddin Mallick got a start, too, as the U-22 player. The other big new signing, Jeje Lalpekhlua, was present on the bench.
Salgaocar, who had undergone a stern test against Bengaluru FC at home last week, made one change in their second difficult game on the run; Nicolas Colaco made way for Leny Pereira in the starting line-up.
Katsumi Yusa, the popular Japanese midfielder spending his third season at Bagan, had disappointed the coach with his performance in the first game. And today, given the extra responsibility of the captain's armband, was showing extra zeal to make an impression today. It was his bad luck that when he was brought down inside the Salgaocar box in the very first minute that it was not given as a penalty. And it was his good luck that when Dhanachandra Singh sent in a long throw, Salgaocar skipper-keeper Karanjit Singh lost the grip on the ball which reached Katsumi at goalmouth. The latter tapped it home with a header. 1-0 to the defending champions in 8 minutes.
But Salgaocar were trying hard too. Thangjam Saran Singh let fly from a distance but it missed the crossbar by a few inches. Then the Goan side's new star signing Jackichand Singh, formerly of Royal Wahingdoh and best player from the previous season, sent a good through ball to striker Darryl Duffy who ran in, leaving defenders behind, with only Debjit ahead of him.
The Bagan keeper - best keeper from the previous season, incidentally - kept calm, advanced and threw himself impeccably to rob Duffy in a one-on-one situation.
Then Gurjinder Kumar, chasing Cornell Glen with the ball into the Salgaocar penalty box, slightly pushed the Trinidad & Tobago striker from behind and gave him the perfect excuse to go straight down. The referee, this time, pointed straight towards the penalty spot. Glen himself stepped up to take it, and though Karanjit rightly guessed which side the ball was going but the sheer force in the shot beat the keeper, kissed the post and went in. 2-0 to Mohun Bagan.
And within minutes it was 3-0. Katsumi Yusa sent in a gem of a corner and Bagan debutant Luciano Sabrosa headed it straight in. The match was barely half an hour old and just like the last week the defending champions had mounted a 3 goal lead.
Young Alesh Sawant was subbed out by head coach Malky Thompson to get Thongkhosiem Haokip into the action but their opponents were still running the show. Souvik Chakraborty got a good ball but lost balance and wasted the opportunity. Then Balwant got a shot at goal which was blocked. Then Katsumi served up yet another delicious corner right to Cornell Glen but the latter's shot went above target.
Salgaocar's woes seemed to be getting worse when the second half started. Although Darryl Duffy got a good shot on target early on, Debjit Majumder was there to palm it away. Then Katsumi got his second assist on top of the goal as Balwant headed in his corner kick to make it 4-0.
Salgaocar got a chance to get one back when Gilbert fed Duffy in the Bagan goalmouth but the latter failed to receive it.
After a while it seemed the game was slowing down. Mohun Bagan once again seemed to think they had done enough and were happy to take it easy and defend the lead. Balwant Singh got booked for time-wasting, and full-time was still half an hour away. Sanjay Sen quickly subbed him for Jeje; he didn't want to risk him getting a suspension ahead of next week's Derby.
But the slack came back to bite Bagan as a Jackichand Singh lobbed ball found Darryl Duffy virtually unmarked. He narrowly beat the offside trap, and found himself with a lot of space ahead. Debjit couldn't do much. It was 4-1.
Malky Thompson was hell-bent on at least ending the game on their own terms. He substituted the substitute Thongkhosiem Haokip with Manandeep Singh as Sanjay Sen swapped Kingshuk Debnath for Raju Gaikwad.
After Glen wasted a chance by shooting it over the bar, Gurjinder Kumar made up for giving away the penalty earlier by latching onto a stray ball and shooting it hard and low, through a jungle of bodies, that evaded Debjit's dive and went into the net. Definitely the best goal of the day, and Salgaocar had salvaged some pride. The scoreline read 4-2.
The match ended here, with Mohun Bagan re-claiming the top of the table by registering their second win on the trot. But the defending champions are set to face their tougest test yet when they take on arch-rivals East Bengal in the Kolkata Derby next Saturday. And while Sanjay Sen has enough reasons to be happy about the way the squad has performed, there are factors - especially the slack and lapse of concentration on the defenders' part - that will keep him worried over the next 6 days.