Twenty two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, Roy Krishna scores sometime in the latter half of that ninety, and in the end Antonio Habas’ ATK Mohun Bagan win. Rinse, repeat, all the way to the title. That’s what they did last time around, and that looks like the plan this time around as well.
Yes, Manvir Singh added a stunning second (already a possible contender for goal of the season), but it was the Krishna goal that set the Habas blueprint rolling — stay organised, defend solidly, grab a lead and take what you get on the counter. Without that Krishna goal, the whole thing goes from a great plan to get three points, to simply a way to hang on for a point.
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SC East Bengal — Mohun Bagan’s great rivals for a century — walked into the game with a swagger that belied the fact that this was their first match of the season, and that they were playing with a squad (and coach) that had been identified and selected a whole lot later than anyone else. They set up in a formation that mirrored Habas’ time-honoured 3-5-2, and with Matti Steinmann controlling the game from midfield and Jacques Maghoma and Anthony Pilkington doing all sorts of good stuff further forward, they dominated the game for large swathes.
By the end of the first half, they had had 65% of the possession and quite a few presentable chances, but with the score still 0-0, act I of Habas’ blueprint was a success. Habas’ defence was, as ever, superbly organised. Tiri swept, Sandesh Jhingan tackled, Pritam Kotal cut off lanes. On the right flank, Prabir Das provided incisive running and incessant crossing, on the left Subhashish Bose provided balance. Against teams that sit deeper, they will miss Michael Soosairaj in there, but on this night, it wasn’t too much of a problem.
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Ahead of them, Carl McHugh was everywhere, putting out fires one moment, kickstarting attacks the next. Jayesh Rane was all running and heart and spirit. Javi Hernandez was a constant menace with his velvet-smooth first touches and quick turns. David Williams was ceaseless in his drive to drag defenders out of position and create space. Roy Krishna was, well, Roy Krishna.
The man from Fiji spent the first half in the shadows, vaguely threatening the SCEB defense, reminding them of his presence by making the occasional run but not doing anything much. Four minutes into the second half, he put into motion act II of the Habas blueprint. Receiving the ball at the edge of the box, he turned — after smart work from Hernandez (and Rane before him) — just inside the D. The defenders inexplicably failed to close him down, their homework either forgotten or not done at all. And that was all it took.
A lookup, a millisecond’s pause to laugh at the absurdity of having so much space, and a powerful, low strike to the keeper’s left with his supposed weak foot.
As soon as the goal went in, you knew what was coming — the let’s-counter-when-we-have-a-chance act III that Habas keeps as an epilogue. That Manvir came on and added a superb goal late on merely acted as insurance.
The goal, by itself, was magnificent. Prabir Das looped a clearance clear and toward the corner flag. Manvir bullied Narayan Das, shrugging off his tackle with a smirk, then cut into the box, waited, sat Abhishek Ambedkar down, waited a fraction more, and absolutely belted it into the roof of the net. Un-saveable.
For most of the second half, SCEB swept forward with wave after wave of attack, throwing men forward, mixing it up with crosses and short, snappy, passing football. They had most of the ball, controlled the pace and the tempo of the match, and played an attractive game. By the end of the match, all the statistics were in favor of Fowler’s men — 68% possession to 32%, 521 passes to 241 with a passing accuracy of 81% to 65%, and 15 shots to 12. Well, all but the one that mattered.