The prospect of the oldest and the most followed rivalry in Indian football – the Kolkata derby featuring ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – is getting the city’s football aficionados back in combat mode after a gap of almost four months.
Happening at the end of the ISL-9 league fixtures, there remains hardly anything at stake for the traditional rivals. But the match at the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday is expected to bring up a surfeit of passion as the two sides fight for honour, the essential ingredient that has given the rivalry its impetus and appeal for more than a century.
On the performance front this season, ATK Mohun Bagan has already booked a berth in the knock-out phase amassing 31 points from 19 matches, while East Bengal (19 from 19) has seen its hopes evaporate long ago as it remained consigned to the bottom half of the league standings.
ATK Mohun Bagan can still improve its position (currently at fourth) in the league standing if it manages to win while East Bengal looks to avenge the 2-0 defeat it suffered in the first meeting in the last week of October.
Both sides have won their last outings as ATKMB beat Kerala Blasters at home while East Bengal upstaged the League Shield winner Mumbai City FC 1-0 in the latter’s backyard.
This sets up an interesting clash as East Bengal gained in strength, making important signings in the January transfer window while ATKMB lies weakened somewhat losing some of its key foreigners to injuries in different stages of the tournament.
This has seen the green-and-maroon boat drifting off course in the final stages as it managed to win just one in its last four appearances. The win in question came against the Blasters in the previous round.
The man who got both the goals for ATKMB, Carl McHugh, will be an unlikely starter as the Irishman is yet to regain full fitness. And with Australian centre-back Brendan Hamill suspended, ATKMB head coach Juan Ferrando will have to reorganize his defensive strategy around the Montenegrin import Slavko Damjanovic, who has primarily worked as a substitute ever since he was signed in the January window.
“Our focus is on winning the match and getting the three points. We are not thinking about the third and fourth position,” Ferrando said.
“For us, it is not important who scores for the team. The most important aspect for us is controlling the spaces when we attack and doing the same while defending. All players working in tandem is good for the team,” Ferrando added while hoping for the first back-to-back win in the second phase of the tournament. The ATKMB attack has hit the doldrums in the second phase where the team won just three out of the nine appearances.
The Mariners have the worst goal-scoring record (22 from 19) among the top-six teams who have made it to the next round.
Unlike its city rival, East Bengal showed remarkable improvement in the last four rounds, where it has lost just once. The introduction of the English striker Jake Jarvis alongside the Brazilian forward Cleiton Silva has greatly helped the team in making the turnaround, which now seems to have come a bit too late.
What will be motivating East Bengal ahead of the important clash is the fact that when it beat a second-string Mumbai City FC at the latter’s home in the previous outing, the Torch Bearers became the only team to pick up all three points from the Mumbai Football Arena this season. Cleiton has scored 12 goals so far and is level with compatriot Diego Mauricio of Odisha FC in the Golden Boot race.
“We are as prepared as we can be for this game. We had a fantastic result last week against Mumbai, where we stopped their unbeaten run at home and also prevented them from scoring,” said East Bengal head coach Stephen Constantine. “It was a good day for us last week and We are confident ahead of the next game. We will be fighting for all three points,” he added.
-Amitabh Das Sharma
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