Football in Kolkata is more than just a game, and the Kolkata Derby is the epitome of celebration of the beautiful game in the city. ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal with over 100 years of animosity between them face each other once again on the 29th of January at the Fatorda Stadium.
With both sides making their debut in the ISL last season and the league taking place behind closed doors, fans have been deprived of the electric atmosphere that the Derby brings along with it but even behind closed doors, a clash between the Mariners and the Red and Gold Brigade is a scrumptious affair.
Ever since the transition from the I-League to the ISL, the fortunes of both the Kolkata giants have been starkly different. While ATK Mohun Bagan has hit the ground running in their new locale, SC East Bengal has found life to be increasingly difficult in the Indian Super League. They have struggled to get a positive result out of the “Boro Match” in the ISL, mustering 0 points and conceding 8 goals.
The Derby on the 29th has different connotations for the two sides involved. ATK Mohun Bagan are currently 8th in the standings, not somewhere their star-studded squad would have hoped to find themselves with half the season gone. While they have played the least number of games due to covid related issues resulting in the postponement of their matches, the Mariners are 7 points shy of the leaders Hyderabad FC with 3 games in hand.
SC East Bengal have struggled this season, issues with their majority stakeholders Shree Cements put a shroud of uncertainty over their return to the league this season, but a timely intervention from the Government of West Bengal meant the Red and Gold brigade got to compete in the ISL but were left with very little time and options to prepare their squad. With 13 games played, SC East Bengal won their first 3 points after a staggering 11 games without a win and are currently rock bottom with just 9 points on board.
The Mariners have been one up over their arch-rivals over the last 3 seasons. Along with winning the I-League in the centenary year of East Bengal, the Mariners have won the last 4 derbies. With the 381st instalment of the Derby due on Saturday, ATK Mohun Bagan will be hoping to continue their dominance over their neighbours but it might not be an easy win for them.
ATK Mohun Bagan, plagued with covid cases missed out on 3 games against Odisha, Bengaluru and Kerala. They returned to the pitch on the 23rd of January but looked a bit lacklustre in front of the goal, with the match against Odisha ending in a goalless draw.
For East Bengal, there was a lot of conjecture surrounding the appointment of Manolo Diaz after Robbie Fowler was relieved of his duties in charge of SC East Bengal at the start of the season. While the Torchbearers pinned their hopes on the former Real Madrid Castilla manager, Manolo rather had a short and underwhelming tenure at the helm of the club.
After failing to manage a single win in 8 games, the Spaniard was shown the door and Rennedy Singh picked up the ropes to take interim charge. Rennedy managed to pick up another 2 points from the 3 games he headed before Mario Rivera took permanent charge.
Rivera seemed to have turned the fortunes for the better for the Torchbearers, delivering a long-elusive first win of the campaign in his first game in charge. It seemed fortunes were changing for SC East Bengal, but Hyderabad FC and Bart Ogbeche handed them a rude wake-up call with a 4-0 drubbing in the next encounter.
ATK Mohun Bagan too had a change of guard after Antonio Lopez Habas resigned from his post of head coach after a string of bad results that saw the Mariners pick up only 2 points from a possible 12 available and former FC Goa man, Juan Fernando was tasked with leading the club forward. With Juan at the wheel, the Mariners have picked up 8 points from 4 games and are yet to lose.
SC East Bengal had a lot of hope pinned on Daniel Chima Chukwu but the misfiring Nigerian has been let go off on a free transfer joining fellow ISL side Jamshedpur FC. The Torchbearers have also released their Slovenian holding midfielder Amir Dervisevic and Rivera has already roped in their replacements.
Marcelo Ribiero dos Santos joins the Red and Gold brigade on loan from Portuguese top division side Gil Vicente for the remainder of the season as a replacement for Chima Chukwu and Fran Sota has been brought in as Amir Dervisevic’s replacement. While Marcelo will have served his quarantine period and might be available for the Derby, Fran Sota’s involvement is a matter of dispute.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s defence has lacked solidarity this season. A defence that had collectively conceded only 13 goals last season has already conceded 18 in 10 games in 2021/22. The Mariners defensive fragility this season can be traced back to the fact that the ATK Mohun Bagan management failed to secure an apt replacement for Sandesh Jhingan who left the Green Maroon to join Sibenik in Croatia.
In January they have finally found the solution to the Jhingan problem, Sandesh Jhingan himself. After an underwhelming stint in Croatia, Sandesh is back in Kolkata and back donning the Green and Maroon and is very likely to partner Tiri in defence against SC East Bengal.
The first derby of the 2021-22 season at the Tilak Maidan was a dream come true situation for the Mariners. A game where they outplayed SC East Bengal almost entirely, saw ATK Mohun Bagan race to a 3 goal lead within the first 25 mins with Roy Krishna, Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco scoring in quick succession. The Mariners had the chance to heap on more misery onto their arch-rivals but they were wasteful in front of goal. In a completely one-sided affair, ATK Mohun Bagan emerged as 3-0 winners with the Red and Gold Brigade failing to register even a shot on target.
The return leg might not be a cakewalk for the Mariners though. SC East Bengal under Rennedy Singh had looked very compact defensively and they have continued their good work under Rivera as was visible in their win over the Gaurs. The Torchbearers decided to sit in deep and protect their 2 to 1 goal advantage for the entirety of the second half against FC Goa and they managed to pull it off successfully.
While their defence did show cracks against the Nizams, Rivera has got enough time to sort out the crevices in his defence before the “Boro Match” and SC East Bengal will likely look to once again sit in deep and frustrate their opponent while hitting them on the counter.
Juan Fernando loves to play an attractive brand of football that focuses more on keeping possession and catching the game by the scruff of its neck. ATK Mohun Bagan have the onus on themselves to get them out of the rut they find themselves in and get all 3 points on board and Juan is more than likely to take an attacking approach to the game against SC East Bengal.
Any Derby game anywhere in the world is a half and half affair where any team can steal the show on a particular day. While ATK Mohun Bagan are favourites to pull off a win, they would also be under the pressure of the favourites tag and also the fact that the Mariners desperately need 3 points to close the gap to the top of the table.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the first “Boro Match” of the season and under Rivera, SC East Bengal look confident and capable of accomplishing the unexpected. A win in the Kolkata Derby in almost 3 years will be a huge boost to their sails and instil that sense of lost pride back into the side.
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