Although Kolkata is still referred to as the Mecca of Indian football, clubs from the West Bengal capital have been struggling in the top flight in recent seasons with East Bengal being the last team to win the title in 2004.
The way the four Kolkata clubs have started this campaign it looks like the wait for an I-League title will be extended. All four teams failed to win in this round with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal also suffering defeats. The Mariners were beaten 2-0 at home by rock-bottom Rangdajied United, who recorded their first-ever win in the I-League while I-League favourites East Bengal lost 3-2 against Mumbai FC and have now dropped 13 points already after just eight games.
Mohammedan Sporting kept a fourth consecutive clean sheet but they also completed a hattrick of home goalless draws against Dempo. The black and whites have built a strong team following the loan additions from IMG-Reliance but they remain eight points off the top. United SC also failed to win but they deserve credit for becoming the first team to score away at Pune FC in a 1-1 draw. The purple shirts have been the only impressive Kolkata team so far but with a lack of strength in depth in their squad, winning the title will be a daunting task
Overall Kolkata clubs have managed just 12 wins among them in 41 matches and have been outperformed by debutants Bengaluru FC and AFC Champions League qualifier Pune FC. Bengaluru are currently the outright league leaders following their 2-1 win over Shillong Lajong while Pune remain only two points behind with a game in hand.
One of the most interesting tactical ploys in I-League history was seen in the stalemate between Pune FC and United SC as Pune coach Mike Snoei used Arata Izumi to man-mark United SC’s playmaker Eric Brown. Arata is versatile but mainly an attack-minded player, however Snoei expertly made the most of the Japanese-born player’s high fitness levels to mark Brown and it worked brilliantly as United SC couldn’t create too many chances from open play with their equaliser also coming after an error from Pune custodian Amrinder Singh.
Early pacesetters Salgaocar have lost their way recently and their winless streak was extended to four matches after the defeat to local rivals Sporting Clube at the weekend. At the foot of the table, Mumbai FC and Rangdajied United recorded vital wins with their loan signings from IMG-R making a huge difference.
With only ten points separating the top 11, it’s fair to say that the I-League is as competitive as the English Premier League if not more.
Mohammedan Sporting 0-0 Dempo; Mohun Bagan 0-2 Rangdajied United; Salgaocar 0-1 Sporting Clube; Bengaluru FC 2-1 Shillong Lajong; Pune FC 1-1 United SC; Mumbai FC 3-2 East Bengal
Game of the round
Mumbai FC 3-2 East Bengal
Five goals, one sending off and plenty of chances, this was undoubtedly the most entertaining fixture of round 12. This was new East Bengal coach Armando Colaco’s first test outside Kolkata and his team failed miserably thanks to some horrendous defending. That was evident from as early as the second minute when veteran Yusif Yakubu, who has replaced Afghan international Hashmatullah Barakzai as Mumbai FC’s fourth foreigner, easily outmuscled India international Arnab Mondal and scored past Abhijit Mondal to give the hosts an early lead.
East Bengal had to chase the game from then on and could and should have been two or three down by the half-hour mark as Mumbai FC created plenty of opportunities but failed to convert them. The red-and-gold brigade made Mumbai pay by equalising through Cavin Lobo but five minutes later the home side regained their lead through Afghanistan midfielder Ahmad Arash Hatife who was given the time and space to score from just outside the box.
Under Marcos Falopa, East Bengal seemed to lack balance in midfield and Colaco hasn’t addressed that problem yet but the defending from the Kolkata giants was dismal. In the second half East Bengal saw plenty of possession but the likes of Edeh Chidi, Lalrindika Ralte were having an off day while Mumbai were defending well with their three-man central defence.
The Mumbai club were boosted by the presence of their three experienced loanees from IMG-R and one of them, NP Pradeep made it 3-1 midway through the second period. The midfielder got in between Uga Okpara and Saumik Dey and headed past a helpless Abhijit. East Bengal had a mountain to climb after that and even some changes from Colaco didn’t help matters. The former Dempo coach introduced Raju Gaikwad to use his long throws but that didn’t make much of a difference.
But Mumbai gave East Bengal a lifeline when Hatife got himself sent off for a needless late challenge while he was on a booking. The AFC Cup semi-finalists made the most of their numerical advantage and pulled one back through Ryuji Sueoka to set up a grandstand finish. But the referee strangely added just three minutes of injury time although they were plenty of stoppages due to fouls and substitutions. Mumbai eventually held on for only their second win of the season while East Bengal suffered their third loss.
Result of the round
Mohun Bagan 0-2 Rangdajied United
Despite being on a four-match winless run, there was plenty of optimism in the Mohun Bagan squad ahead of this fixture as they were up against I-League newboys Rangdajied United, who were yet to win this season. Perhaps that optimism turned into overconfidence as Rangdajied recorded a historic 2-0 win to move out of the bottom spot for the first time in their debut campaign.
Much like Mumbai FC, Rangdajied have been strengthened by the signings from IMG-R but even the presence of those four players couldn’t see them win their previous two matches as they were held to a draw despite going in front. The Shillong club took the lead in this match also through Manandeep Singh and defended brilliantly against Odafa Okolie and company. India defender Gouramangi Singh and goalkeeper Subrata Pal were at their very best while the Mohun Bagan fans were getting frustrated by their team’s display.
In the second half Odafa had plenty of chances to equalise but was either denied by Subrata or last-ditch tackles from Rangdajied defenders. The Shillong outfit needed a second goal to secure the points and that came midway through the second period from skipper Eugeneson Lyngdoh. Mohun Bagan threw everything at Rangdajied in the final quarter of the game but Santosh Kashyap’s side preserved their clean sheet.
The result will give Rangdajied’s young squad plenty of self-belief and they would be looking to win a few more matches before the break to boost their survival chances. But Mohun Bagan are back in crisis with the pressure mounting on skipper Odafa and coach Karim Bencherifa. The Kolkata giants are trophyless for the last three seasons and their hopes of winning the I-League look to be already over as they are ten point off the top with ten teams above them.
Foreigner – Yusif Yakubu (Mumbai FC)
He might be 37 now but Yakubu showed his class against East Bengal again with a brilliant performance. The evergreen Ghanaian is a legend in Indian football and set Mumbai on their way with an early strike. He was imperious for the entire game and will be vital in Mumbai’s relegation battle.
Indian – Sunil Chhetri (Bengaluru FC)
The India skipper had added responsibility against Shillong Lajong because of the absence of Bengaluru’s injured top scorer Sean Rooney. Sunil doubled his tally for the season with a match-winning brace and the result sent the debutants to the top of the table.
Mohammedan Sporting look set for another hefty fine as firecrackers were burst in their home match against Dempo while the game also had to be stopped for about four minutes as missiles were thrown close to the pitch. Interestingly the Mohammedan Sporting club officials didn’t admit their mistake and stated that they were helpless since too many fans were attending their matches. Surely that explanation won’t help their cause.
But currently the biggest controversy is surrounding Salgaocar as they are set to be penalised for fielding the unregistered duo of Australian Matthew Foschini and Goan Fulganco Cardozo against Pune FC and Bengaluru FC in round 10 and round 11 respectively. Both Pune and Bengaluru are set to be awarded 3-0 wins and if that happens, Salgaocar will drop to fourth in the table while Pune and Bengaluru will be the joint league leaders.
The Table (excluding Salgaocar’s potential punishment)