Mohun Bagan Super Giants vs East Bengal FC. Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata. Boro match. 132nd Durand Cup Final. Asia’s oldest football tournament.
Indian football doesn’t get more historic than this. Two clubs, two fanbases who shared 32 Durand Cup wins between them (16 each); A rivalry steeped in tradition. It’s a familiar stage, having faced each other 10 times in the Durand Cup final (4 wins and two joint winners). Yet, on the pitch, something very new is brewing, like the clash between Carles Cuadrat and Juan Fernando in the Kolkata derby.
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It represents an opportunity for both clubs to win a competition they haven’t won in a decade or more. Everyone was waiting for this Durand Cup Final…
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: it’s very likely we’re going to witness 90 minutes of attrition football, either through a set-piece, individual skill or even a penalty to decide the destination of the trophy.
Evidence? Just three weeks ago, when both sides canceled each other out and reduced the range to speculative efforts. It took Nandakumar Sekar’s best Arjen Robben impression to break the deadlock on the hour mark, curling in with his left foot after outfoxing Anirudh Thapa on the edge of the box. East Bengal held on, and gave the red-and-gold side their first win in eight attempts against their opponents at Quadrat Maidan.
As this is still a ‘pre-season’ tournament, both teams have developed quickly – both Ferrando and Cuadrat are unlikely to feature in similar starting XIs as in the group stage. Still, the breadth of the show may make for a cautious approach, as both directors’ previous records in the finale demonstrate.
How did they get here?
East Bengal started the tournament with a 2-2 draw and their most recent semi-final ‘victory’ was a 2-2 draw. Sandwiched between those games was classic quartet fare – two 1-0 seconds that saw them top Group A and an own goal courtesy of a 2-1 win over Gokulam Kerala in the quarter-finals.
However, as Quadrat opted for a more defensive approach in the semi-finals (defenders Nishu Kumar and Jose Pardo played in midfield), East Bengal found themselves 2–0 down against NorthEast United FC courtesy of Konsam Palguni Singh. It wasn’t a classic square fare as the game descended into chaos – Mahesh Singh’s perplexing late goal and Nanda’s equal-time injury header set up a penalty. Parthiv Gogoi saw Prabhusukhan Gill save his penalty (illegally) and crash the rebound onto the crossbar, with Nanda calmly taking the fifth penalty to seal the win – sending East Bengal into the final. Welcome to Maidan Madness, Mr. nature
Mohun Bagan had a decidedly easier time of it en route to the final than their rivals, finishing second in their group (they were almost eliminated by Mohammedan SC, who ran out 6–0 winners with a seven-goal margin). That loss to East Bengal was their only one in the entire tournament, beating Bangladesh Army and Punjab FC in the group stage, before a disappointingly comfortable 3–1 win over Mumbai City FC in the quarter-finals.
– Mohunbagan Super Giants (@mohunbagansg) September 1, 2023
Juan Ferrando and Manolo Marquez provided plenty of headlines in the semi-final where Bagan won 2-1 after a controversial game. FC Goa took an early lead through Noah Saadawi’s new-found lethality but Bagan were gifted a way back into the game with a penalty that should have been a free-kick outside the box. Jason Cummings made no mistake from the spot, allowing Armando Sadiq to announce himself as a garden cult hero with a stunning long-range strike on the hour mark. There was a huge injury-time save to deny Goa, and Bagan went over.
What will be the fight in the final?
It will come down to personnel, but there is no denying that Nanda was instrumental for East Bengal. If he can isolate one of Shubashish Bose or Thapa, he could very well wreak havoc. Lalchungnunga, with a call-up to the national team, looked a weak link in East Bengal’s semi-final win over NEUFC, and one of Sadiku or Cummings could capitalise.
The real battle is midfield, where Hugo Baumas, Sahl Abdul Samad and Thapa will likely face Borja Herrera, Saul Crespo and Souvik Chakraborty. The trio canceled each other out in the previous derby, but held the quality among themselves to turn a game on at a moment’s notice.
If it comes down to penalties – Gill and Keith have already proven their mettle, although the Garden keeper may have the slight edge.
How will they lineup?
East Bengal FC Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Prabsukhan Gill (GK); Nishu Kumar, Lalchunnunga, Elsie Jordan, Harmanjot Khabar; Saul Crespo, Souvik Chakraborty; Mahesh Singh, Borja Herrera, Nandakumar Sekar; Xavi Saverio
Mohun Bagan SG Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Vishal Keith (GK); Subhashish Bose, Hector Yuste, Anwar Ali, Ashish Rai; Aniruddha Thapa, Sahl Abdul Samad; Ashiq Kourounian, Hugo Baumas, Dimi Petratos; Armando Sadiku
What risk to take?
Plenty for East Bengal FC. Mohun Bagan is not enough for SG.
The green-and-maroon side at Maidan have to rewind a few months to their last trophy, when ATK Mohun Bagan won the 2022-23 Indian Super League. A first Durand Cup win since 2000 would be nice, but not necessary – especially with their sights on the AFC Cup and the upcoming ISL season. Bragging rights are essential in the Kolkata derby, however, and Juan Fernando will make sure his players are keenly aware of that fact.
For East Bengal it is a matter of existence. Lose, and their perennial bridesmaids tag will be more cemented – all the more painful if it is their old enemy pouring concrete. Their last major national trophy was the 2012 Federation Cup and their last Durand Cup win came in 2004 – a long time for a giant of Indian football. Carles Cuadrat and his players have a shot to write themselves into history, but only if they keep their heads in the present.
The 391st Kolkata Derby is here, and with three trophies on offer, it makes more sense