As Denson Devadas’s bullet header nestled into the net to bring Mohun Bagan another vital win to stave them off further from the threat of relegation on Saturday, he jumped to reach the sky in joy and pumped his fists as sheer delight wreathed through his veins. There may finally be light at the end of the tunnel for Mohun Bagan this season and Karim Bencherifa has to be credited for bringing solace to the hearts of the millions who worship the Green and Maroon.
Bencherifa returned to a Bagan that offered him a chance to steer a ship which had no radar and a tattered sail for a push. In a few months’ time, the officials managed to somehow make it tougher on him by prodding in holes into the hull, following the Kolkata Derby fiasco. From trying to kick-start their faltering season to providing them a semblance of dignity, the task became steeper but the resources available to the Moroccan remained the same: a discombobulated team that lacked both balance and spirit.
Challenged with keeping the club afloat after being stripped of all the points 10 games into the season is not the task that most would relish upon coming back for a second stint. Add to that the pressure of coaching in Kolkata and the expectations of the myriads of fans that have been starved of silverware in the last two years, Bencherifa had a lot to lose after breaking away unceremoniously from the team he had built at Salgaocar. But he sure did have a lot to win as well. Bencherifa never shied away from the challenge though. He took the bull by the horn and has managed to come out of it all with his reputation having received a shot in the arm.
In the course of four months, the Moroccan has been able to break off the negative self-image at Mohun Bagan. In the space of 10 games, he has proved to be the missing rudder, guiding the mariners away from the relegation places while also putting in a credible display in the IFA Shield, only to be knocked out via a penalty shootout. With Bencherifa at the helm, the team has approached games like a new blank slate laid in front of them each time they have walked out on the pitch. 22 players slugging it out for 90 minutes with more often than not Mohun Bagan coming out on top because of Bencherifa’s infusion of tactical nuances, and brilliance of their foreigners in the form of Odafa Okolie, Echezona Anyichie and Tolgay Ozbey.
The team may still be heavily top-loaded; their identity might still linger around the images and exploits of Odafa and Tolgay. But Bencherifa has been able to cook up an effective combination between the two foreign stars and the assortment of Indian talents. Whether it is Denson Devadas playing the defensive shield in front of the back four, C.S. Sabeeth playing in the hole behind the main forward, Biswajit Saha slotting in at in the wing-back slot or Mehraj and Aibor coming to the fore in their defensive scheme of things, Bencherifa has employed his skills to get the most out of a team that was “gathered”, rather than assembled. Even national players like Syed Rahim Nabi, Nirmal Chhetri, Manish Mathani and Jewel Raja, who had been gravely under-performing, have regained their touch.
The attention to detail and the time that he spends with members of the squad with regard to how they employ their skills in the larger scheme of things are evident in the practice sessions where he spends hours in talking to individuals. The biggest beneficiary has been Echezona Anyichie, who has become the stalwart at the back in Bagan’s comeback. The Moroccan’s work has stopped Anyichie from becoming yet another flop recruit like Diamondstar and Daniel Zeleny in the past.
With the duo of Tolgay and Odafa leading the way in their ten game unbeaten streak in the I-League, the Mohun Bagan fans can now see a silver lining in it all – a hope for the future. The silverware may not come this season but the belief that it will come sooner rather than later glows ever brighter, both in the hearts of Mohun Bagan fans and players.
Bencherifa hasn’t let the minutiae of being the pointless club at the bottom of the table get to the players. He certainly hasn’t let the opponents walk over them even when all seemed down. The task is not yet over, but who will bet against them now? Bencherifa expected nothing but a baptism of fire and he has replied with fire. That fire now burns in the hearts of the players crossing the white line wearing the Maroon and Green.
“The team has gone through a lot of stress and we desperately need everyone’s support. We have to also be patient and then the results will come,” Bencherifa said. The overwhelming support wasn’t always there, the seats weren’t always filled; patience was a virtue that was forced upon the fans this season. The gaffer however has delivered on his promises.
Go hard or go home. For Karim Bencherifa’s Mohun Bagan, it has been mostly the former.Published 15 Apr 2013, 00:21 IST