For the second successive tournament Juan Ferrando’s ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) started with a defeat against an I-League team they dominated. ATKMB salvaged their campaign in the AFC Cup with convincing wins against champions from Bangladesh and Maldives after the 2-4 loss to Gokulam Kerala FC. It will have to be seen whether East Bengal, Mumbai City FC and Indian Navy pose a stiffer challenge in the 131st Durand Cup.
For Rajasthan United, the come-from-behind 3-2 win at Salt Lake stadium would be one of the most memorable nights in the team’s short history. Founded in 2018, they came through the ranks last term having won the I-League second division. Staying up and making the championship round ensured a satisfactory start to their I-league journey where they finished sixth in 2021-22. Gyamar Nikum’s goal in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time showed they could hold their own against one of India’s most expensive rosters, one that has a Finnish international and in Florentin Pogba, a defender was part of a team that under current Paris St Germain coach Christophe Galtier won the French Cup in 2012-13.
Like Nikum, Bektur Amangeldiev and Lalrensanga Fanai were precise in front of goal just as their opponents were profligate. Nikum’s strike came when ATKMB were desperately searching for a goal. Krygyzstan’s midfielder Amangeldiev made the most of ATKMB’s inability to clear their lines and Pogba not being alert to the situation and Fanai struck when the home team couldn’t deal with a corner-kick.
It will not matter to Rajasthan United that ATKMB could have run up a double digit scoreline. It will matter that goalkeeper Niraj Kumar emerged player of the match. He made crucial saves in both halves and would leave his line in time forcing ATKMB players to try and lob from one-on-one situations which with unerring regularity they failed to do.
Manvir Singh, used as a second half substitute, could have got a hattrick. Ditto Kiyan Nassiri. Ashish Rai and Subhasish Bose missed from close as did Liston Colaco. Used to playing wide forward to accommodate pricier imports, Singh’s lack of sharpness in front of goal has been a worry for India for a while. On Saturday, it hurt ATKMB.
Facing a low block, ATKMB were crowded out in the rival penalty area but after a deluge of misses had Nassiri stabbing home in the 43rd when Ashique Kuruniyan found him with a prompt from the left. Amangeldiev ensured the lead was short-lived scoring in the 46th. ATKMB started the second half with Kuruniyan striking from a free-kick taken quickly by Hugo Boumous in the 46th. More seemed in the offing but ATKMB conceded in the time Pogba was substituted in the 58th and before Brendan Hamill could settle when Fanai shot home in the 61st.
Ferrando has been trying to get ATKMB to play in a way markedly different from the direct approach of Antonio Lopez Habas. ATKMB are circulating the ball and trying to play out from the back. Getting used to that will take time and twice goalkeeper Arsh Anwar almost paid a heavy price trying to do that. Pogba and Hamill showed they will need time to settle into Ferrando’s three-back style, Lalrinliana Hnamte and Kuruniyan have to work on the sharpness of his deliveries and the forwards efficiency in front of goal. Up next on Wednesday are former ISL champions Mumbai City FC.