SOME EIGHT THOUSAND fans, who made their way to Barasat on a rainy Tuesday afternoon to support Mohun Bagan, saw their Calcutta Football League title challenge fall apart in a disaster of a performance against Army XI. In a match they had to win to keep up with arch rivals East Bengal on the points table, the Green and Maroon attack failed to get the better of the Army defence a single time and ended up losing the match 1-0.
The match was fraught with occurences frustrating to the I-League champions from the outset. To begin with, the kick-off was delayed by 20 minutes because the Army jersey and the Mohun Bagan home shirt was of a similar colour. The game finally kicked off after Bagan changed to their white away kit.
Then, 7 minutes into the match, an aerial ball curling into the box saw Bagan keeper Shilton Paul as well as midfielder Ujjal Howladar leap towards it. The two collided mid-air and fell down in agony. While Shilton managed to recover, Ujjal limped away to receive treatment outside the pitch and minutes later, had to be subbed by Manish Bhargav.
A game of counter attacks ensued as neither team could gain full control over the contest. Shahdeep Rai's attempt went straight to Bagan keeper Shilton Paul, which prompted Mariners to rise in a counter, only to have Dudu Omagbemi caught offside. Army immediately replied with another onslaught, but Pratik managed to block Arjun Tudu's path. Katsumi Yusa was trying his best to maneuvre his way with those speedy runs, but his attempts either went wide or got stalled for lack of support. Dudu, for his part, carried out a series of misses. A great run up the right flank by Manish saw him put defenders behind and send a clean cross into the penalty box begging for Dudu to get his foot to it, but he too slow to reach it. Dudu then sent a ball into the net - the crowd rising in unison - albeit with his hand, which he acknowledged immediately. Minutes later, Katsumi sent in a high corner to which Dudu applied his head... and it hit the bar. The first half ended goalless, with nothing but angst in the final third for the Green and Maroons.
But there was hope. Which was what the rain-drenched second half was about to dismantle on the green turf. 3 minutes after the match re-started, Shahdeep sent a high ball ahead to Jain P, positioned near the left flank, just outside the Bagan penalty box. The entire region, somehow, was completely devoid of Bagan defenders. Jain received the ball, turned, took a shot with his left foot, the ball took a slight deflection off an oncoming Bagan defenders, and the deviation on its trajectory was enough to steer it clear from Shilton Paul's reach. Army XI were 1-0 up, against the run of play, but now had an opportunity to bag full points if they could hold out.
Mohun Bagan had chances to get back at them. 54 minutes in, Pankaj Moula sent in a cross which Katsumi swung hard at, but Army keeper Sarath managed to tip it out for a corner. Then Katsumi took another corner, Dudu got his head to it, this time on target, but safe into the hands of Sarath. Then Mohun Bagan encountered something strange: a dubious foul committed on Dudu inside Army penalty box saw the referee grant them a free kick from inside the box instead of a penalty. As a decision this is rare and weird. But the free kick that Katsumi took was worse to look at. A minute later he was substituted by Gustavo who, in spite of being a defender, was playing as an attacking midfielder... a fluke move tried by coach Sanjay Sen which if successful could make him come off as a genius, but unfortunately did no good.
Gustavo, as well as newly introduced Kean Lewis, tried their best to get something going. But Kean's speedy runs up the right flank always landed him alone, deep into Army territory, without support. Gustavo's pressure on the Army defence drew fouls, scrummages and free kicks but the much coveted goal was still amiss. He even managed to send the ball into the net from Dudu's pass, but was ruled offside. Just before that, Lalmaya had been pulled and brought down inside the Mohun Bagan box in what could have been a penalty to Army, but referee saw the fall as a dive from Lalmaya and flashed him a yellow.
As the clocked ticked on, Army players fell down all over the place, picking up strange injuries. As 90 minutes of regulation time ran out, an agonizing 6 minutes were added onto it. Army XI defended their territory with their lives, and managed to keep Bagan out until at long last the referee blew three times into the whistle. Exhausted, the victorious Army players lay down on the pitch, drawing deep breath, taking in the aftertaste of perhaps their most memorable match of the season.
The win sends Army XI to 2nd place on the table, with 12 points from 7 matches. The first and 3rd places are currently occupied by East Bengal and Aryan Club, with 13 and 11 points respectively from 5 games each. Mohun Bagan have fallen 5 points behind their archi rivals East Bengal now. They languish in the 5th place, with 8 points from 5 matches. The deficit appears to be irreparable unless some underdog pulls off a major upset on the league leaders. East Bengal, as it stands, are well on their way towards their 6th consecutive Calcutta Football League title, a historic feat previously achieved only by themselves, more than 3 decades ago.
As for Mohun Bagan, the start of their season has turned bitter. Lack of defensive stability was apparent once again, and at this point there is no solution to their woes in sight, unless potential new signing, Haitian defender Judelin shows up match fit and immediately makes his way into the first team. But unless something is done drastically soon, they are in for a humiliation when they face East Bengal on 6th September. The Kolkata Derby is what sets the tone for the season, and a bad loss in that is something they will want to avoid at all costs. The CFL title is out of their hands. Pride is all they have left to fight for.