THE BUZZ AROUND THE MAIDAN ahead of Mohun Bagan's match against Sporting Clube de Goa has a loud central theme: will the Flaming Oranjes manage to subdue the Mariners by using their own old weapon against them? The weapon in question, of course, is Odafa Okolie. But that's not the only former Mariner coach Mateus Costa has up his sleeve ahead of tomorrow's game.
While the Nigerian star striker danced around the media spotlight during pre-matchday practice session and afterwards, a certain Denson Devadas seemed to be relaxed and laid back, soaking in the pre-battle heat. This veteran medio can become key in Costa's quest to conquer the defending champions, for a very simple reason that Devadas himself explained in precise words,
"Odafa is my old colleague, he knows me very well since our Bagan days. I know what way he likes the ball, and he can read me very well. That's what helped us a lot against Mumbai FC to win that penalty in the last minute."
The 33 year old, who hails from Kerala, spent 7 long years of his career playing in Kolkata, 2 of them at Mohun Bagan. He recalled his time there with the detached fondness of a professional,
"I had good times in Kolkata, both at United SC and Mohun Bagan. My first season at Bagan, I won the Player of the Year award. Next season Odafa couldn't start many of the games so that dragged us down a bit. But overall a good experience over there."
So, was playing against his old team a pressure-filled prospect? Denson shook his head,
"Nothing like that. At Sporting Clube de Goa, there's no pressure on the team or any of the players. We just play our game, there's no crowd pushing us too hard, and the players are also very mature... I'm not particularly worried or excited about playing my old club. I'll play my usual game."
Denson said he had already made himself at home in the new team, the new club and its easy-going vibe,
"It's been very easy to adjust to this new team. Only a week ago I played my first match against Bengaluru FC, and I felt at home with the team from the get go because I was used to playing at this level. I was at Chennaiyin FC before that, and ISL is of course not in the same wave-length as I-League, but it didn't seem difficult to adjust over here."
Talk turned once again to tomorrow's game, and obviously, Odafa. The striker has been scoring goals but in the last game there was a visible lack of a solid supply line between him and the midfield. Denson immediately acknowldedged that this indeed was an issue that night,
"What happened there was that Densil Theobald couldn't start the match and he's a key player for us in the midfield. And Mahmoud Amnah, another important midfielder, had to go out in the first half. That pulled us down a little bit but still we could manage to work hard and get the 3 points; it wasn't easy, Mumbai FC are a good team this season. So winning the match from that situation felt good."
While the win against Khalid Jamil's boys at home was helpful, playing Mohun Bagan away in front of their vocal fans is a different cup of tea. But it's not one that's too strong for Denson's taste. He waved off the possibility of coming under pressure from the crowd,
"I've played in front of the Kolkata crowd long enough and trust me, it doesn't put any pressure on the away team. They are always onto their own team. If till half-time they haven't scored, the home team comes under terrible pressure from the crowd. And if they're trailing, they're done for. I think it's Mohun Bagan who have all the pressure, with them being at the top of the league."
Speaking of the league, Sporting Clube de Goa aren't doing too bad themselves. Denson nodded at the mention,
"Four to five teams are right up there this season. You can't predict who will end up as the champions. We are trying our best to be in that race, and the team is in good shape. We did trail in the league table at first but we came back, and now we're fourth. It feels good. We'll continue to do our best."
So, if Sporting Clube de Goa manage to beat Mohun Bagan tomorrow, should they be considered a legitimate title contender? Denson flashed a wide smile at that question,
"Yes, definitely. You can see the table, you can see our results. If we win tomorrow it will take us just one point behind Bagan and Bengaluru. It'll be great for the club. Let's see what happens."
All the while, talking about the league and the team and everything else, never once did Denson betray a sign of worry or sadness. But his face turned grim at the mention of the football scene at his home state, Kerala. His entry into the national football scene came in the heyday of Viva Kerala, but since the old giants closed down no club from the state has been able to step up to fill their shoes in the top division. Denson said,
"Kerala was once known as the main main adda of Indian football. Unfortunately we can't find an I-League club over there. It's a drawback for Kerala football and the newer, upcoming players. They have to travel elsewhere to seek a platform to show their talents. It's a sad situation really... maybe the new Kerala Super League will solve some of the problems for them; let's hope it will give us lots of young local talents going forward."
Always the optimist.