DUBBED 'MINI DERBY' by fans, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting took on each other at Barasat in the first Clash of the Giants fixture in the Calcutta Football League. The match was a season-starter for both clubs, and as always, carried high significance in the title race. There was massive hype around the game among fans but due to police restrictions only about six thousansld spectators were allowed into the stadium. But there was no shortage of excitement as Mohammedan Sporting, down to 10 men, carried out a gritty battle to ensure they walked away with one point.
True to the spirit of CFL, both clubs had a lot of young players in the team. Mohun Bagan featured a squad that had only 3 players who were part of the team that won the I-League. Of the foreigners, only Katsumi Yusa started, wearing the captain's armband. There was a lot of buzz around two debutants: Raja Das, a centre forward who caught the attention of Mohun Bagan officials with his performance in Satosh Trophy, and right winger Kean Lewis, the Mumbai lad who has played for Houston Dynamo Under-23 team. (Kean was signed and regidtered late Saturday evening so he could be included in the reserves). Vast majority of the squad was aged below 25. Mohammedan Sporting coach Mridul Bhattacharya relied on Bikramjit Singh and captain Kareem to hold Bagan off.
The match began with Katsumi charging forward deep into Mohammedan Sporting territory to make his intentions clear. Bijoy Mandi ran up to counter but got caught offside. After a few minutes of back and forth like this, Basant Singh had a shot on target but Bagan keeper Debjit Majumder was there to grab it. Shortly after, Bagan had a free kick, but Tirthankar Sarkar's lacklustre shot bounced off the wall. But things took a bad turn for Mohammedan when deep into the first half captain Kareem brought down Ram Malik just outside the penalty box, and got red carded for that. Mohammedan were down to 10 with two-thirds of the game still left.
Mohun Bagan decided to push the advantage. Early on they had a great chance and got the ball to Raja Das quite close to the goal, but he fired wide. Mohammedan rose for the counter, and Nuruddin let it fly... but Debjit pulled off a stunning save, tipping it for a corner. Soon after, using a loophole in IFA's law (it specifies 2 foreigners on the pitch, but does not address if a third foreigner can be introduced in case one of them gets red carded) Mohammedan introduced Bernard Dolfi as a substitute, and the first half finish with the match brimming with possibilities.
Early in the second half, Bagan replaced Tirthankar with Kean Lewis. It was the ex PIFA academy and Houston Dynamo U23 player's debut for the Green and Maroons, after standing out in the trials. Already a fan favourite, he was greeted with loud cheers. His arrival had a visible impact on the game, as minutes later his cross drew Mohammedan keeper Ishan out, who tried to make a grab, fumbled, and almost gave Raja a golden chance to score, before finally gripping it on second attempt. Lewis then stepped up to take a corner but shot it wide.
Then Deepak Kumar brought down Bagan's Ram Malik. He got a yellow card. Lalkamal took the free kick, Kean Lewis gave it a sharp header, but the ball went just above the bar.
Around 72nd minute it was Lean Lewis again, leading the charge, holding the ball, with only the keeper ahead of him. He let fly... and it went wide. A minute later, newly introduced Pankaj Moula got a ball from Katsumi with a clear sight of the goal ahead, but he took a second too long and the ball was cleared. It was the best two chances of the game, and Bagan squandered both.
The last few minutes of the game got a bit physical as Mohammedan defenders fought tooth and nail to keep Bagan out. Foul after foul followed. Dipankar picked up a yellow for bringing down Katsumi. The whole team came came down defending against free-kicks. They counted out the seconds until the final whistle blew, bringing an end to the contest: a nervy goalless draw.
After the match, Mohun Bagan coach Sanjay Sen was upset about the missed chances, while the Mohammedan players and staff were buoyed by having salvaged a point in spite playing with 10 men for so long. Mohun Bagan's Lalkamal Bhowmick was chosen as the Man of the Match, for dominating the midfield and creating many chances which unfortunately fell apart in the final third.
The draw gives a head start to East Bengal, who got off to a winning start on Saturday thanks to a late goal against Tollygunge Agragami. CFL being a tight tournament, this is a precious lead in the title race for the Red and Golds. Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, will be hoping that the arrival of their new signing Dudu Omagbemi will sharpen their attack and turn things around for them, as they seek to mount a title challenge to deny their arch rivals a sixth straight CFL triumph.