It was perhaps the most awaited fixture of this I-League season. Arguably the most important match-up when it came to the title race, Mohun Bagan returned to the venue in which they sealed the title just a few months ago. It turned out to be a sweet return to the Kanteerava for the Mariners as they ran out 2-0 winners over Bengaluru FC.
The battle lines were drawn as the most consistent team in the I-League over the past three seasons took on defending Champions Mohun Bagan. In a truncated league, the results of the games between the 3 main title contenders, namely Bengaluru FC, Mohun Bagan, and East Bengal were always going to be crucial. BFC and Bagan faced off in front of a charged up crowd at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium.
Eugeneson Lyngdoh continues to be sorely missed by Bengaluru FC
The loss against Mumbai at the Cooperage a couple of weeks ago saw the Bengaluru based side’s perfect start to the season come to an end but they lost more than 3 points in the battle. Khalid Jamil’s side are known for their aggression and a robust tackle, to put it politely, by Srikanth Ramu left Eugeneson Lyngdoh on the ground writhing in pain.
A single player being injured should not make that big a difference to a side expected to be challenging for the title but given the context, Lyngdoh’s injury was a body blow to Ashley Westwood’s side. The midfielder has been around Indian football for a while now but has seen his stock rise meteorically since joining the Blues. A lynchpin of the midfield last season, the 29-year-old stepped up to emerge as one of the key men in his first season at the club as he took to Westwood’s style of play like a fish to water. More of the same was expected of him this season, especially given Josh Walker’s injury in pre-season. Bengaluru FC moved swiftly to rope in Michael Collins as a replacement for Walker but it was Eugeneson who was expected to be the glue that held together the midfield.
His absence was especially felt on the night against a strong Bagan side. Ashley Westwood knew better than to play with a high midfield especially with the speedy Haitian Sony Norde looking to put the home side to the sword on the counter. Such a system was crying out for a player of Lyngdoh’s calibre in midfield. A player calm on the ball and capable of playing out from the back and constructing a move. The 4-3-3 shape that Bengaluru FC lined up in is perfect for passing triangles all across the pitch but as mentioned above it needs a technically gifted player who can combine the vision to see such passing opportunities along with the technical ability to execute short sharp passes. The two pressing midfielders Shankar Sampingiraj and Thoi Singh are certainly impressive when it comes to work rate but they lack the polish in terms of passing range that has seen Lyngdoh emerge as a key player for not only Westwood but also Stephen Constantine and the national team.
Giving the ball away in your own half against a team with an attack as stacked as Bagan’s is suicidal and it came as no surprise that in the absence of Lyngdoh, Westwood decided to err on the side of caution and looked to the long ball up to Kim as his primary attacking avenue. The North Korean was left isolated most of the time and got little change out of the Bagan defence. He ran the channels and competed for every ball but with little support and a first touch that flattered to deceive, Kim was finally put out of his misery by Westwood and replaced by CK Vineeth. Chhuantea’s sending off only further compounded Bengaluru’s woes. With Eugeneson spotted on the bench with crutches and crucial domestic as well as AFC Cup games coming up, Westwood will have to learn to cope without his number 14 and fast.
Bengaluru’s football culture has been truly established
For such a vast country, India’s footballing hotspots are sadly limited. The Kolkata clubs have a rich history and massive fanbase backing them, Goa and Kerala are known for their football mad fans while the North-Eastern part of India continues to churn out players and fans alike. However, in the last couple of years, Bengaluru has suddenly found its way back on to Indian football’s map. Karnataka and HAL have produced important players for the national team in the past but with HAL being limited to lower division and finally local league football, Bengaluru were crying out for a local team to support. Enter Bengaluru FC.
The JSW-backed club are in only their third season but have already made their mark in Indian football. The fairy tale first season in the I-League ended with silverware as they overcame massive odds to be crowned the Champions. A Federation Cup was snapped up soon after seemingly to reinforce the fact that the title win was no flash in the pan. What is perhaps even more remarkable is the way they have managed to capture the imagination of the average Bengaluru football fan.
A crowd of over 17,500 fans made their way to watch the game unfold from the stands and while that may not seem to be a big number, once you factor in the general attitude towards the I-League, it’s significant. With massive tifos being unveiled before games, Saturday saw a reference to the Breaking Bad TV show, and blue smoke engulfing the stands, the fans are doing a great job in not only bringing in the crowds but also making Indian football sit up and take notice.
The atmosphere on the night was electric and to be fair the Mohun Bagan fans too contributed to it albeit to a lesser extent. The home fans, who call themselves The West Block Blues, were in their element from more than an hour before kick off and didn’t let up throughout the game even though their team were a man down for most of the second half. Loud and far from politically correct, the Bengaluru FC faithful were immense and are a breath of fresh air when it comes to comes to fan culture in Indian football.
Modern Indian football’s biggest fixture
For years the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan has captivated tons of supporters and has positioned itself as the biggest football game in the country. While the passion and rivalry between the two sides is unlikely to fade any time soon, Bengaluru FC’s addition to the Indian football mix and their 2014 title victory has thrown a different perspective onto the game in the country.
From the passion in the stands, to the intensity on the pitch and right till the managerial rivalry, Bengaluru FC vs Mohun Bagan has become the flagship fixture for the I-League and the overall position of the game. The fact that Bengaluru FC’s title defence was undone by a last minute Mohun Bagan equaliser in the last game of the season in 2015 only further intensified the rivalry between the two.
And while the hatred between the two sides and their respective sets of supporters right from the stadium to social media may be shunned upon by some, it is just the sort of attention the sport requires.
Written by Arnab Ray & Sami Faizullah
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