Can the football justify the Kolkata derby hype?

The Big Picture

The Boro match. The derby. One hundred and one years of dividing India’s greatest football city and its families and friendships in two. There’s nothing quite like East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan. With or without an ATK in there.

The maidan never disappoints off the pitch, and that remains as true in 2022 as it did in 1921. East Bengal fans aren’t entirely satisfied with the way this squad was put together, or with the initial impressions of Stephen Constantine’s, er, cautious approach to football.

Mohun Bagan fans can’t quite comprehend how the name ATK is still prefixed to their club (and everything that brings with it) and haven’t been shy about expressing their deep displeasure.

Over the last two fractious years, those willing to overlook this could at least enjoy watching a side challenging for the title but it’s been a slow start for Bagan this season. The heat around Juan Ferrando, though, lifted a bit after his side hammered a strong Kerala Blasters side 5-2 on the counter in Kochi.

They’d started the season terribly — getting knocked out of the Durand Cup and the AFC Cup in the space of a week, and then being overrun by Chennaiyin in their season opener — but the win last fortnight should have done them a lot of good.

As should have East Bengal’s 3-1 win over NorthEast United last Thursday for an EB side that had started the season rather dully. Last week, they held their (admittedly poor) opponents at arm’s length, Stephen Constantine style (can link musings here) and they’ll be hoping that result will be the kickstart of a good run that will help them bury the last two years of ISL mediocrity.

The hype, as ever, is real. Whether the football will live up to it — it hasn’t in their short history in the ISL — remains to be seen.

ISL musings: Stephen Constantine’s East Bengal provide hope, Kerala Blasters’ mini-slump

The Head-to-Head

Does it really matter? In a league where player-and-coach attrition is so high, a head-to-head comparison is always going to be a bit redundant. But it’s even more the case when East Bengal play – much like the stripes on two tigers, no two (modern) EB teams are ever the same. But, for the record:

Total games played: 376 (out of which 358 were competitive matches)
Mohun Bagan Wins: 125 (competitive, 116)
East Bengal Wins: 129 (competitive, 127)
Draws: 122 (competitive, 115)

The recent record is skewed tremendously in favour of Bagan. They’ve won all four of their ISL derbies, outscoring EB 11-2 across those matches. EB also lost in the Durand Cup (1-0, Sumeet Passi’s own goal) ahead of this ISL season. Bagan are the more established side — in terms of individual players, squad, and manager-having-spent-time-with-said-squad — and are heavy favourites. On paper.

The concerns

For Bagan

Their excellent result at Kochi came a fortnight ago – what kind of an effect does such a large (and for the ISL, unusual) break have on the team’s momentum?

For East Bengal

Keeping NorthEast United at bay is one thing. Liston-Petratos-Manvir-Boumous-Kauko is a whole different ball game.

For the neutrals

It’s a match no one wants to lose. This could lend itself to both teams playing the kind of football that ‘focuses on minimising mistakes’. AKA puts people to sleep.

The key players

Hugo Boumous and Joni Kauko

When Boumous does Boumous things, he’s impossible to stop – as the Blasters were reminded so harshly. His free role up top makes it hard for markers to keep track and more often than not opens up space for those around. You’d hate to leave Boumous one-on-one, but if he floats to the left and you double-mark him, that leaves you one-on-one with Liston. Which is almost as scary.

Even if the flair players are kept quiet, though, Bagan’s not-so-secret card up their sleeve is Joni Kauko. If your central midfield gets dragged around trying to put out the fires lit by Boumous and Liston, there will be holes in the middle of the park. Into which Kauko will drive with unrelenting force.

Jordan O’Doherty and Charalambos Kyriakou were excellent against NorthEast, but just how they handle the middle of the pitch here will be key.

Cleiton Silva and VP Suhair

EB’s attacking threat primarily stems from the running ability of Suhair and the clinical finishing of Silva – with both being deployed down the right, this is a direct threat to Bagan’s weakness. In the opening 20 minutes against Kerala, Ashique Kuruniyan (square-pegged into a left-back role, again) was hopelessly isolated as they tore down his flank.

This dragged Bagan out of shape and unable to get out of their half. Suhair and Silva will target this area – both outside Kuruniyan and the channel inside him – and Brendan Hamill.

Kuruniyan’s presence adds great attacking value but for that Bagan do sacrifice a lot of defensive solidity. That little channel around the reluctant fullback could well be the best route to goal for Constantine.

The predicted XIs

Considering that neither manager would want to tamper with winning formulae…

East Bengal (4-4-2): Kamaljit (GK); Golui, Chungnunga, Gonzalez, Lalrinzuala; Suhair, O’Doherty, Kyriakou, Mahesh; Silva, Haokip

ATK Mohun Bagan (4-2-3-1): Vishal (GK); Ashish, Kotal, Hamill, Ashique; Tangri, Kauko; Manvir, Boumous, Liston; Petratos

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