Arguably the most hyped fixture in the Indian football calendar, the Kolkata Derby is finally upon us. This Sunday, the two traditional powerhouses Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will go head to head in the first I-League Derby of the season. The game, which was scheduled in December but had to be postponed due to political unrest will now kick-off at the Salt Lake Stadium from 5 pm.
The Mariners come into the Derby riding high on good form, both on and off the pitch. They have procured 13 points from their last 5 games and could potentially open up a 6-point gap at the top of the I-League table, where they now sit pretty with 14 points from 7 games. Not just that, they also lead the statistical charts as well, scoring the most goals in the league (12) so far and Bagan player Fran Gonzalez leads the race for the Golden Boot as well (5). Off the pitch, the recent announcement of Mohun Bagan’s highly anticipated merger with RPSG-owned ATK FC will be further motivation for the players to perform even better so that their contracts get renewed and they get a shot to play in the ISL next season.
The Red and Gold are in the exact opposite end of the form spectrum, having won only 7 points from their last 5 matches. They have suffered defeats in their last 2 matches, with the last one being an especially damning 1-3 loss to Gokulam Kerala at home. Poor defensive mistakes and missing sitters have cost Eastbengal this season but they have a chance to correct all of that with a win over their fiercest rivals. The Red and Gold did the double over the Mariners in the I-League last season and there is no doubt that Alejandro Menendez will be drawing a lot of confidence from that.
Kibu Vicuna has deployed a 4-2-3-1 in most games this season, with Diawara leading the line and the likes of Suhair, Naorem and Beitia making up the offensive midfield. However, the key cog in his system has been the Real Madrid academy graduate Fran Gonzalez, who has been scoring for fun in the league this season. His late runs into the box and powerful shots have drawn comparisons with the Chelsea legend Frank Lampard from the Mohun Bagan faithful, and there is little doubt that he will be eager to make an impression in his first-ever Kolkata Derby. The backline of Gurjinder, Cyrus, Morante and Ashutosh Mehta look well-settled and will not be perturbed at the prospect of facing the faltering Eastbengal forwards. Injuries to Shilton and Azhar Mallick will mean they will probably miss the game but that Mohunbagan has sufficient quality to make up for these losses.
Expected XI: (4-2-3-1) Sankar (GK), Gurjinder, Cyrus, Morante, Ashutosh, Sahil, Fran Gonzalez, Naorem, Beitia, Suhair, Diawara.
Alejandro Menendez has rotated between a 4-3-3 and a 4-4-1 this season, so it will be interesting to see exactly which formation he chooses to start the Derby with. The key players will be East Bengal’s Spanish triumvirate of Marks de la Espada, Jaime Santos and Juan Mera who will hope to put their miserable run of form to an end and give Mohun Bagan a run for their money. Kassim Aidara will be expected to control the tempo of the game from central midfield while Crespi and Mehtab will have the onus of not conceding silly goals again. Overall, it will be an interesting tactical battle between the two Spanish coaches and it is hard to pick a favourite.
Expected XI: (4-4-1-1) Ralte (GK), Ambekar, Crespi, Mehtab, Thapa, Juan Mera, Aidara, Didika, Mahata, Jaime Santos, De la Espada.