Two of the oldest opponents of Indian (and Asian) football – ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – appeared to whet their skills and stratagem as the city prepares for the first Kolkata Derby of the Indian Super League (ISL 2022-23) on its soil.
The match, which comes up at the teams’ regular home at Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday after the pandemic, is expected to bring alive the excitement and the drama usually associated with the intense rivalry shared by the traditional rivals.
It will come as the second match of the weekend’s double-header where Mohun Bagan will continue to remain the favourite with its impressive start-list against East Bengal, which is still looking to settle down with a new squad assembled towards the end of the transfer season.
For the record Mohun Bagan has won all four meetings ever since the two sides started their ISL journey in the 2020-21 season. When the two arch-rivals met outside the ISL calendar, in the Durand Cup group league stage in August, the result did not see any alteration as ATKMB continued its winning run with a 1-0 victory to five consecutive games.
It remains to be seen whether there will be any change in fortune in their sixth meeting on Saturday. Both the teams arrive at the match with a win in their previous outings (ATKMB beating Kerala Blasters 5-2 and East Bengal downing NorthEast United FC 3-1). This factor is likely to add to the intensity of the contest as both sides look for bragging rights.
The Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando remained cautious about his opponent saying that the qualitative difference between the teams has narrowed down.
“This season, there is very little difference between the first-place and last-place teams. There are a lot of great teams who have a chance to win. In this case, we’ll have to prepare for the derby like a final – but I think this is great for Indian football,” Ferrando said.
Stephen Constantine, the former National coach now in charge of East Bengal, also remained quite upbeat. “There is also the question of bragging rights and pride that goes with the Kolkata Derby. I am aware that we have not won a derby in the last few meetings. So, we are going to try and fix that tomorrow night,” he said.
For Mohun Bagan and Ferrando, the win against Kerala Blasters came as a big relief as the team staggered through the early part of the season losing in the majority of its outings. It exited from the group stages of the Durand Cup before losing the AFC Cup inter-zone semifinals against Kuala Lumpur FC.
The start to the ISL season was also not bright as Chennayin FC visited Salt Lake Stadium to beat Mohun Bagan 2-1. It will be important for Ferrando to pick up a point and continue the recovery process. “The results don’t really matter in making one team favourite and the other side an underdog. The derby is always 50/50 and tomorrow we’ll give everything – passion, courage and hope we will win. It’s not a case of us being the favourites. They (East Bengal) are also working hard to win and so are we,” Ferrando said.
East Bengal too, has its task cut out as Constantine will be looking to provide a settled look to his squad by picking up more points from the match.
“We have made tremendous improvements since the day we began with 12 players on a rainy morning. I think we are a better team today than how we were when we played Mohun Bagan in the Durand Cup. Of course, it is a league match, so both the teams need the three points,” Constantine said.