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ATK Mohun Bagan vs SC East Bengal: Both Managers Claim Moral Victory, One Leaves With Three Points

Leslie Xavier |
In the aftermath of a game that has dominated the headlines in a week of many, the coaches of both clubs — ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal — claimed their teams played better than the other. The truth is that Bagan walked away with the points, their perfect start unblemished. Any commentary on the quality of the game itself is perhaps best set aside for another day.
Roy Krishna of ATK Mohun Bagan

Roy Krishna celebrates with ATK Mohun Bagan teammates after scoring against SC East Bengal in their Indian Super League (ISL) match on November 27 (Pic: ATKMB, Twitter).

Maybe, it has something to do with the hype surrounding the match, or the prestige associated with outplaying and outfoxing arch rivals. Even in the aftermath, not a quarter is being given. The coaches of ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal seem intent on claiming a larger victory based on footballing quality and gameplay, now that the match is done and dusted with one side coming out the winner in a clearcut fashion. 2-0 is clear cut by any measure. 

Not for Robbie Fowler though, the East Bengal coach, who feels his side matched the defending champions toe for toe. ATK Bagan coach Antonio Habas feels if that was the case then the result should have been 2-2. But it wasn’t.

Let us start with the match narrative: ATK Bagan beat East Bengal 2-0 in the first Kolkata derby of the Indian Super League (ISL) to stay top of the league standings with two wins from two games.

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Roy Krishna, their talismanic Fijian striker, scored his second goal of the season in the 49th minute with a powerful shot from the edge of the box. The chance opened up after a good build-up from Jayesh Rane and Javi Hernandez, and the latter’s pass set up Krishna for his goal. 

To be fair, East Bengal were having a good share of the action and chances till the goal happened, typical of what we have seen with a side coached by Habas. 

He has been, perhaps rightfully, described as the Jose Mourinho of the ISL. Habas’ side loves to eke out results, sitting back, parking the Kolkata metro train in front of the goal even if it yields reward.

The storyline is almost identical in all of the games they play. They take a lead somewhere around the midpoint of the match. And then double it — if at all — after the 80th minute, invariably via a counter. It was a counter that brought about Manvir Singh’s goal which made it 2-0 for ATK Bagan on Friday.  His solo effort was stunning to say the least, but was against the run of play as well, taking advantage of EB’s energies fully focused on finding an equaliser.

Perhaps this fact, that East Bengal was pushing — in patches if not right through the match — made Fowler reiterate, and claim that they matched Bagan, regardless of the result. 

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"Well of course I'm not satisfied with the result,” said Fowler. “I think performance-wise we were okay. For a team who have been together two and a half weeks, I think we have put together a good performance. We are talking about a team who were champions last time and we matched them, more than matched them. The result is disappointing, the performance is okay, there are glimpses of what we can become.”

He added that fitness perhaps played a crucial role too. 

"Fitness-wise they were a bit sharper than us, maybe towards the end." the former Liverpool player said. “We haven't had the most ideal preparation but we accepted it. We have spent two and a half weeks on the training pitch. We have not trained together. I think we'll get better and better." 

Habas, on the other hand, was elated with the result. The most successful coach in ISL history — having won two titles — he is a man who values results. And so, though his side lived dangerously many times in the first half, he claimed the larger victory, reiterating again that the result proves him right. 

"I think we decide the game with the score. We were superior to our opponent," the Spanish coach said. "This is football. it is a transition between attack and defence (and vice versa). I don't understand football which is only attacking or only defence."

Of course, sir! Then again, for many of us — neutrals as well as fans — it is also hard to understand football played chasing numbers and not the ball. 

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That leads us to, perhaps, the biggest takeaway from the derby which had the fans and stalwarts of the original Mohun Bagan and East Bengal clubs divided too. Many felt that the freshly minted ISL derby is not original in its spirit. 

Originality in football requires many more things than clubs older than a century, though. 

It was evident that for many, the derby was an attempt seeking heritage, history and originality when things have moved on. The clubs, and their rivalry, are in the present now, in the ISL. And, in the ISL, victory lies in the numbers, and a pragmatic game of attrition. Habas, a Spaniard, has identified the right nerve to keep himself relevant in this closed, almost old-boys-club-ish league. 

East Bengal is now part of it. If at all EB, or any club in the ISL mix for that matter, wants to make a difference on a grander scale, they should probably look beyond the 1-nils and 2-nils. They can afford it for they won’t get relegated for going down all guns blazing. The ISL is special that way! 

That would make the derby worth its hype. No past hangovers, and game beyond result. A game of, by and for football. 

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