Two Tigers, One Den | Mohun Bagan vs Odisha FC Match Preview | Indian Super League Semi Final |

Two Tigers, One Den

Mohun Bagan SG vs Odisha FC

Courtesy: Mohun Bagan SG Media

"The problem in this situation, I talk to my players about that in the training session, is the relaxation inconscious. Because inconscious you thinking about we win the regular league, now calm. No calm, because the competition is coming, waiting for the team, immediately! I have the responsibility to activate the player in this situation. This is my work now, because now the training is practically impossible to improve. The level of tactical, maybe small detail, but no big detail. Now the more important thing is the intelligence to play in the matches," Antonio Lopez Habas, Head Coach, Mohun Bagan SG, in Pre-Match Conference via RaySportz.

Habas knows how Indian football works. In this same pre-match presser prior to Mohun Bagan’s semi final first leg against Odisha at the Kalinga, he stated that passing football isn’t something that interests him, because then they will have to evade the pressing of the opponent.

He associates this statement to one which he made on March 11 before the game against Kerala Blasters which Bagan sensationally won 3-4 away. “If you look at 19/20 'oh Habas park the bus ah' but now we have the player for attack, that time no, same for 2014. It depend on the player, but that don't mean always attack attack attack, also defend,” he explained.

From such statements it is evident that Habas understands the tactical and technical limitations of ISL clubs. He does not make some powerful statement to garner PR points, like how he can change Indian football by developing players and create some sort of revolution. No, never.

He, like any other rational Indian football enthusiast, understands these are aspects which arise from the rotten fundamentals of Indian football, at the grassroots. In the currently flawed system, a player cannot be improved beyond a certain technical ability, that too in the senior setup and match schedules which even force clubs to play thrice a week sometimes.

That’s why he is Antonio Lopez Habas. That’s why he is regarded as one of, if not the greatest coaches in ISL. A warrior who overcame illness to make sure of his presence in the dugout in the crucial ISL Shield Decider against Mumbai City FC.

Mohun Bagan dominated that game, played beautiful attractive football. And neither Habas nor the author of this article opines that the team who had the greater number of passes or greater share of possession or field tilt is the better team. They don’t give out prizes for that. What matters is the score on the top left corner of the screen, and it was 2 goals to only 1 against Mumbai at full time a week ago. Mohun Bagan, yet again the Champions of India, with our players sleeping on Asian dreams again.

That is again where he emphasizes about avoiding the sub-conscious complacency in his players, because “the competition is coming, waiting for the team, immediately.” This time it is Sergio Lobera’s Odisha.

The rivalry against Odisha has arguably been the greatest rivalry of the current Indian footballing calendar. It starts from the AFC Cup where Ferrando’s Bagan tactically outclassed and toyed with Odisha, scoring four and keeping a clean sheet. A goal each from Sahal Abdul Samad and Liston Colaco and a brace from Mohun Bagan’s newest legend Dimitri Petratos in the second half gave Mohun Bagan a flying start to the 2023/24 season.

However, while many fans were looking up which opponents Bagan could be facing in the knockout rounds of the AFC Cup, it was exactly then that Odisha FC themselves thrashed the Mariners 5-2, knocking them out of the competition while themselves advancing to the interzonal semi finals, where they lost 4-0 on aggregate to Central Coast Mariners, the club which the current joint fourth highest goalscorer of ISL 23/24, Jason Cummings, now with Mohun Bagan, was a part of last season and won the A League with, scoring a hat trick in the 22/23 Finale of the Australian top division.

The ISL was all to play for after the Asian elimination. Just nine days later after the 5-2 embarrassment, Bagan had to face the Juggernauts again at the Kalinga. The match ended 2-2. Bagan compensated for an Ahmed Jahouh brace in the first half with an Armando Sadiku brace in the second half, the second equaliser coming four minutes into the stoppage time.

The match had an ugly end after the final whistle, where Roy Krishna, former Bagan player, could be seen approaching Juan Ferrando and the two having a heated argument over reasons undisclosed, and the Bagan head coach getting penalised with a one game suspension from the referee there. 

However, Juan could not survive the expectations of the club for the return fixture against Odisha. Under Habas, it was a goalless affair at Salt Lake. Anwar Ali returned from his prolonged ankle injury he suffered against Basundhara Kings during the AFC Cup Group Stage. Both teams messed up a plethora of big chances, Mohun Bagan arguably a few more. A combined Expected Goals (xG) of 1.78, Bagan contributing to 1.28 of that, couldn’t cause any disturbance to the score keeper who had an easy evening at work.

And this rivalry of 2 draws and a defeat to each team now continues onto the Semi Final stage of the ISL. Odisha were in the title race along with Bagan, Mumbai and Goa, but could finish only fourth after losing on momentum in the business end of the season.

They had to win over Kerala Blasters at extra time 2-1 to secure a semi final berth. Kerala missed chance after chance due to their own individual errors, but Odisha took full advantage of their own replicated the same goal twice, firstly Thoiba Singh Moirangthem giving a long ball to Krishna from the middle of the park to the right edge of the penalty box, Krishna squaring it in to Diego Mauricio for the first goal and then Jahouh sending it to Krishna in the same location with a no look pass and Isaka Ralte tapping it in for the second.

There is only so much a coach can do with their players. Segio Lobera brought back many of his old mates once he landed at Bhubaneswar at the beginning of the season. The management trusted on him, giving him complete freedom in the foreign department and Lobera and his boys repaid the faith with an impressive Asian outing and taking the team, which was not counted on by many enthusiasts, to one hurdle short of the ISL finale, for the first time since Odisha FC’s existence.

And now that hurdle, Mohun Bagan, the ISL League Shield winners, will try their level best to not make their title dreams a reality. They understand the defensive vulnerabilities of Odisha. Although this season onwards, ISL Cup Winners neither get any Asian slot, nor do get the official ISL Champions tag, still winning the Cup is still not only a complete ISL victory on the sub conscious terms in the minds of the fans, and players, but also it brings a significantly larger sum of cash, necessary in the still unprofitable structure of the competition.

Another incentive for Bagan has to be completing the revenge for the double heartbreak of 20/21 where Mumbai snatched away not only the Shield but also the Cup from Bagan at a handshaking distance. There will be a lot going through the minds of the players, but whoever is more successful in cutting the mental noise and maintain the focus on the pitch will be the ones to go through in this upcoming two legged affair, the first one being at Kalinga Stadium on the 23rd, the return leg at the Salt Lake five days after that.

The Black Tigers of Odisha were considered to be a mythical creature for centuries living in the Similipal forests in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. After pictures of the tiger finally could be captured and such a phenomenon could be scientifically proven (the black colour coming from a single mutation in the gene Transmembrane Aminopeptidase Q (Taqpep) causing a type of pseudo-melanism on the tiger body), these tigers have aroused massive interest in the public, and even safari tours to spot such tigers are in the plans to be started.

On a similar note, many considered Odisha FC promising for the ISL Trophy as another myth, something unachievable and taking much longer. But this myth too got busted this season through this unprecedented growth under Lobera, who already has two Shields and a Cup during his previous ISL stints with Goa and Mumbai.

But this Black tiger is set to face Bengal’s own Royal Bengal Tiger, the National Animal of India, which exists in the same part of the country as the National football club of India. With its century and thirty years of glorious history, getting continued at the present with this determined squad, the upcoming two legs will be clashes to remember, and may the best tiger win. 

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