Bagan rue penalty miss, poor refereeing; SAI keepers shine as they earn a draw

A PENALTY MISS and some poor refereeing cost Mohun Bagan a win as SAI (East) held them to a goalless draw at Barasat Stadium today. This constitutes Bagan's second draw on the trot in as many matches, resulting in them falling behind fellow Calcutta Football League title challengers East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting, both of whom are on 4 points off 2 games.

Mohun Bagan started with both Raja Das and Kean Lewis up front, with the latter, an ex Houston Dynamo U23 player, being handed a place in the starting line up for the first time. Ram Malik was in charge of the right flank, although he Pritam Kotal's usual runs up the wing were to continue, pushing him inside the box to receive the cross. Lalkamal Bhowmick, in spite of being injured during practice earlier, was deemed fit to play, while defender Safar Sardar was rested for his groin injury, with Sanjay Balmuchu starting in his stead. Katsumi remained the only foreigner in the starting line-up, given a wider role to maneuvre the midfield better and counter the speedy counters SAI are known for.

The other notable thing about the teams was the presence of two brothers in opponent clubs: Azharuddin Mallick came on as a substitute for Mohun Bagan while Wasim Akram Mallick started for SAI. 

The game started with some early Bagan offence. The pressure was on SAI defenders as Mohun Bagan attackers forced 3 corners in the first 10 minutes, and things came to a head when Ram Malik was brought down by SAI defender Subhankar inside their box. Although Subhankar did get a touch on the ball, the referee deemed it to be a corner. But SAI keeper Santanu Ghosal dived to his left with impeccable timing, gripping a relatively weak spot kick by Lalkamal Bhowmick, denying Bagan the chance to get the early lead Sanjay Sen so desperately wanted. Santanu, however, could not continue much longer as he picked up a knock and had to be replaced by Ranjit Jana. But his substitute was not an easy nut to crack either, as Mohun Bagan were about to find out. 

As the game went on the I-League champions continued to see most of the ball but their act in the final third continued to be fruitless. Pritam Kotal made a run up the right flank, got in the box, took a shot but it went wide. Ram Malik and Kean Lewis were clearly out of sync as the former's crosses repeatedly went without finding a recipient ready to put a finishing move on it. SAI tried to put together a few attacks as well, but Debjit stood tall, absorbing onslaughts put together by Sona Sardar and Deep, as the clocked ticked its way to halftime.

The second half began with renewed waves of attack from Bagan. Kean Lewis was good on the ball, repeatedly shaking off SAI defenders who descended on him in numbers but Raja and newly introduced Pankaj Moula were unable to see them coming. The lack of coordination was once again laid bare when Pankaj's pass caught Lewis, in a good position inside the box, completely unaware, and Wasim Akram managed to clear what could be a dangerous attack.

Then a clever long cross managed to fool the SAI defence and found Katsumi inside the penalty box with only the keeper ahead of him. The Bagan captain made no mistake in putting the ball inside the net but the assistant referee raised his flag, calling it an offside. However, it was clear from the replays that Katsumi was signficantly behind the offside line when the shot was taken and had instead found a way to sneak past the defenders in time to receive the ball. But the assistant referee had his own interpretation of the event and the goal stood disallowed anyway.

Mohun Bagan replaced Lalkamal Bhowmick and Kean Lewis with Manish Bhargav and Azharuddin Mallick but it was not of much help. SAI defenders guarded their fortress with all their might and when Manish Bhargav tried to make a run into the penalty box he found himself surrounded by yellow shirts. Then the ball went in again: Sanjay Balmuchu headed the ball home but he was declared offside, rightly this time. The score remained 0-0 as Bagan's search for a goal became more desperate.

Pritam Kotal made another run up the right flank and sent a cross in but Azharuddin squandered it. Ram Malik, now playing on the left, invaded the box and earned a corner but that did not yield anything either. And then SAI almost ran away with a goal against the run of the play: Subhendu ran in with the ball from the left and sent the ball dangerously into an empty space in front of the Bagan goal, but there was no SAI player to tap it in. But the young cadets of the Darjeeling-based SAI academy stood vindicated as the final whistle sounded: they had stopped the mighty Champions of India from taking full points from them. Koushik Sarkar, SAI defender, was chosen to be the Man of the Match.

Two matches into the short and intense CFL campaign, Mohun Bagan are still looking for a win. Their defenders have more or less done their job and Debjit Majumder has been solid under the post but their attacking line up looks half-baked without a Sony Norde or a Pierre Boya in there. Sticking young players like Ram Malik, Raja Das and Kean Lewis up front, coach Sanjay Sen is still very much bleeding them in, fully aware that they do not bring the assurance of an experienced positive striker one needs to get regular wins in a tournament like CFL. Sen will definitely rue the refereeing decisions that went against him, and perhaps his decision to play Lalkamal Bhowmick as well; the inclusion of the latter being a testimony to the inexperience so prevalent in the squad. 

For the last few seasons the Calcutta Football League has been decided by very close margins, and teams have paid for failing to win easy-on-paper games against smaller teams. Having dropped 4 points already (first time in their history they have started CFL with 2 draws), Mohun Bagan's challenge against East Bengal's push for a 6th straight CFL title has received a major setback. Whether or not they can recover from this remains to be seen, and it may all depend on how soon Dudu Omagbemi arrives in the city and becomes the worthy target man this Bagan midfield so desperately needs. 


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