"A Fiery Battle on a Winter Eve" - The Kolkata Derby Review

What comes to your mind when someone says "Indian Football"? The national team, Sunil Chhetri, heaps of expectations and years of trying and pushing for international recognition. If you are one of the older people who have seen it all in the Indian football circuit, from the days of the dominance of Goan and Bengali giant clubs, to the recent rise of the cash rich Indian Super League, nothing ever tops the Kolkata Derby. " Boro match'' or the big match as we like to call it in this part of the world. Two teams with enormous amount of success, the most in Indian football history. Two clubs who are not just a part of the Indian football history, but they define it. Two clubs with passionate fans and enormous hate for each other. You can't romanticize such matches, for fans these are wars. New warriors and heroes are born off it. New villains, new celebrations and new stories. It's the only game that matters. That's the Kolkata Derby for you.

Unlike the trend in the ISL in the recent past, East Bengal were the team who were tipped to win this derby. The reason? They are the reigning champions of the Super Cup. They beat Mohun Bagan on their way to the trophy. Expectations were big from Carles Cuadrat and his men. On the other hand, Mohun Bagan went into the game low on morale. No signings in the winter transfer window, a new coach in Antonio Lopez Habas, and a host of injuries. The Mariners filled the stands trying to cheer the players on. Their only wish? A fight. A fight without giving up. A fight worthy of the Kolkata Derby.

Habas chose his first line up of the year by selecting Vishal Kaith in goal. Anwar Ali returned from injury and he started in the heart of the Bagan defense along side Hector Yuste, Brendan Hamill and Subhasish Bose. The midfield three consisted of Sahal abdul Samad, Anirudh Thapa and Deepak Tangri. Upfront were Armando Sadiku, Dimi Petratos and Kiyan Nassiri.

The match kicked off at a high pace. Both teams looked to attack. Asian football's biggest club rivalry was at stake. And the players were up for it. Well, atleast East Bengal's players were. A cross from Nishu down the left was met sweetly by Ajay Chhetri. And within the first 3 minutes only Mohun Bagan went 1-0 down. The fans were shocked. The players were numb. This can't happen again. They had to get up and fight for it.
And so they did. The Habas-effect was in full flow. This team didn't sit back and give up hope. They kept knocking on the door, with passes and shots. And the reward came ultimately. 16th minute of the game. Hamill received the ball in an advanced position. He put in a cross into the box, hoping for someone to make a contact. And there was the Albanian striker who made no mistake. A poacher's finish to send the fans into pandemonium. Armando Sadiku, a striker who's been criticized a lot this year finally seemed to have found his footing in  Indian football. He's a number 9, a pure number 9, a poacher of sorts. And he delivered. 1-1. Game on!!

No side were ready to give up. End to end football at it's very best. If East Bengal came close via Cleiton and Saul Crespo, Mohun Bagan came inches close to taking the lead via Sadiku yet again. Sadiku looked hungry, a man on a mission. Granted some of his long rangers were way off target, and maybe he should have put Bagan forward too, but he showed something that he lacked under Ferrando. Under Juan, he looked cold, secluded and left out from the squad. Today, he looked like the real Armando Sadiku, a warrior, a fighter. He tried along with Dimi, Sahal and Kiyan, but the score at half time read 1-1. An end to end affair, almost breath taking. The players were giving it their all. And the fans were riding on the roller coaster of emotions that this match was providing.

Anwar Ali had to be taken out owing to injury yet again. One might feel his return was rushed. But can you really blame the team? If the whole Indian National team couldn't replace him, where would Bagan buy his replacement? Anwar going out meant it was a chance for youngster Amandeep to come on. And he looked good. He got into good crossing positions, almost making an assist for Dimi to score from at the beginning of the second half. 
But as is the case so often with Indian football, disgraceful refereeing had to take the centre stage yet again. 47th minute of the game, Ajay Chhetri lunged into a horrible tackle on Brendan Hamill. In any league in any art of the world it was a straight red. But Indian football is different. Hence he escaped with a yellow. Another testament to the absolute mockery of a refereeing system that exists in India. The players can surround the referee and push him, and he'll just let these things happen. 

Dangerous Clueless Tackle from Ajay on Hamill

Hamill had to be taken off due to that tackle. But Bagan's worries didn't end there. 52nd minute of the game, Referee Gifted East Bengal a Penalty after a probable challenge from Deepak Tangri on Naorem Mahesh inside the Bagan penalty box. And expectedly Mahesh went down and East Bengal won a penalty. And up stepped Cleiton Silva. A panenka in the biggest game in Indian football. Credit where it's due, it was the penalty of a man who had ice in his veins. East Bengal's messiah made it 2-1 for them again. With Anwar and Hamill both out, Bagan was staring at another derby defeat. 
East Bengal players tried to use all sorts of wayward tactics to slow down the pace of the game. Be it Sayan who got smacked, and quite rightfully so, for constantly bad mouthing Dimi Petratos or their forwards who kept going down at the slightest of touches. Such tactics, though not uncommon in the derby seemed unnecessary as it kept interrupting the game. 
The match flew at the speed of a river, crushing one boulder after another. If East Bengal had a shot on Vishal Kaith's goal, Bagan made sure to return the favor to Prabhsukhan Gill and the East Bengal defense. The spectators were hypnotized, at times forgetting to breathe. The cheers, the jeers, the glory, the sorrow, it was an amazing testament to what football actually means. But wait, it wasn't all done. The game had still one twist to come. The hero of last season's triumphant ISL campaign for Bagan, the Aussie heart of the Mohun Bagan team, Dimi Petratos had a say in the closing stages.
86th minute of the game. Amandeep floats in a delicious cross from the right. The ball is not cleared well by the East Bengal defense. Sahal robs the ball off Nandhakumar and fires it in low into the box. The ball rebounds off an East Bengal defender, and falls to Dimi. And like always, he delivers. He thumps the ball into the net. The aggression of the shot palpable, the aura of the player recognizable even from the outskirts of Kolkata. For this is a special player, on a special night, in a special game, and he scored a special goal. He is Dimi Petratos. And he is ours.

The ebb and flow nature of this game continued till the end. East Bengal looked to score from a corner, but it was thwarted away for a Mohun Bagan counter that resulted in a corner for Bagan. The attacking spree continued with no team dominating the proceedings. And this is how it should be. A Kolkata Derby is a match between two teams of similar strength, it's a visual spectacle. It's special because no one wants to give up. And the players truly delivered. The game didn't need to end, for it felt like eternal bliss. A crowd upwards of 58K truly got their money's worth. A paring contest, a match of wills.

The spoils were shared. The points were shared. An ode to the history of Indian football shared in the legacies of these two great clubs. Franchises come and shut down, players come and go. The clubs remain. A match that will surely go down in the history of the Kolkata Derby. 
3rd February, 2024. Remember the date. Kolkata football can die. It's the fire that has kept Indian Football's dwindling lamp alive. And long may that continue.

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