ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) have exhausted their quota of 62,970 tickets, a club official said at Salt Lake stadium on Friday. The stadium counters were shut but if you hung around, you could be offered ₹100 tickets at four times the price. One day before the Kolkata derby – the first in the Indian Super League (ISL) in the city since Mohun Bagan and East Bengal joined the competition – felt every bit of what Stephen Constantine said: “the biggest game in India and one of the biggest in Asia, the world even.”
One that the East Bengal coach said was not about “pressure” but “a pleasure to be part of.” Speaking later, ATKMB coach Juan Ferrando said “it will be a party of football. This is why you play.” Sat next to Ferrando at the press conference, Pritam Kotal, who has been part of these games since 2013, said: “A derby can make a player.”
Given the teams’ defensive frailties, the game could see a goal fest. Like in the 2009-10 I-League when Mohun Bagan pumped five, Edeh Chidi getting four goals, but took in three. Or in the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final when East Bengal, riding a Bhaichung Bhutia hattrick, won 4-1 stopping a free-scoring Mohun Bagan in a manner that was swift, sudden and surprising.
Asked about East Bengal leaking goals, Constantine shrugged and said, “well, so have they.” Both go into Saturday’s showdown after convincing away wins but neither team has kept a clean sheet in ISL9. ATKMB goalie Vishal Kaith has conceded a penalty in the first game − his rash challenge on Kwame Karikari giving Chennaiyin FC a lifeline− and let one slip through against Kerala Blasters in the second. In three games between the sticks at East Bengal, Kamaljit Singh has made reflex saves but has dropped the ball more times than he would have liked. He has also had trouble with goalkicks.
The personnel, in front of goal too, have been iffy. Through the Durand Cup, AFC Cup inter-zonal final and in ISL9, ATKMB have struggled after turnovers, a problem Ferrando blamed on “losing focus.” ATKMB have let in four goals in two games and the likely back three of Brendan Hamill, Pritam Kotal and Subhasish Bose don’t look settled. Kotal attributed that to the defenders not having played together enough.
That is truer for East Bengal where Ivan Gonzalez hasn’t been at his best leading the defence, which has shipped six goals in three games.
All that could mean attacking players lighting up the evening. Constantine joked with his captain Cleiton Silva asking for a hattrick from the Brazilian. In Dimitri Petratos, ATKMB have a forward who has got one and the 2018 Australia World Cup squad player is likely to have Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh as attacking partners.
But Silva and the industrious VP Suhair can make it uncomfortable for ATKMB wingbacks and as he showed against NorthEast United (NEUFC), Charalambos Kyriakou is unafraid to move up from middle and unleash a thunderbolt.
Like against NEUFC, Kyriakou could partner Jordan O’Doherty in central midfield and their duel with Jonny Kauko and either of Hugo Boumous and Carl McHugh could influence the game. For Ferrando, football is a collective search for space. It exists, he said, because the size of the pitch is big. Kauko’s performance would be crucial to ATKMB exploiting space. The Finnish international can score ghosting into the front third, as he did against Kerala Blasters, is capable of playing raking passes and can stop moves from becoming threatening.
Nearly three months after he started training with 12 players, Constantine said, East Bengal have made “tremendous progress.” Given everything – a star-studded line-up where Kiyan Nassiri, who has a hattrick against East Bengal, starts on the bench and having the same coach− eight of 10 people would think ATKMB were favourites, said Silva. Then he said: “We are okay with that. We will see tomorrow.”