Goalless draw exposes chinks in Mohun Bagan's armour

When Sanjoy Sen was given charge of Mohun Bagan, a few days ahead of the 2014-15 Federation Cup in Goa, it was what seemed like an out-of-character appointment for one of India's most prestigious clubs.

Much like Yorkshire in cricket, Mohun Bagan is a club that prides itself on having placed greater faith in local talent for a majority of its existence. It was only in the 1990s that they began recruiting players from outside Bengal, and in subsequent years saw players like Chima Okorie, Jose Barreto and Bhaichung Bhutia attain legendary status in their famed maroon and green jersey.

Sen was an outsider in more ways than one. Not only had he not played for the club like some of the previous player-turned coaches, his coaching experience in Kolkata was restricted to United Sports Club and a much-depleted Mohammedan Sporting club before taking over with the then three-time national champions.

Seeking their first major silverware since the Federation Cup win in 2008, Bagan began life under Sen with a goalless draw against Bengaluru FC, but then a defeat to Salgaocar at the Tilak Maidan saw them knocked out of the Cup.

There was a good team being built in the process, though, and the most important addition to the roster was Sony Norde, who had caught the attention of the club's officials with a stunning free kick that helped Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi of Bangladesh beat Mohun Bagan 1-0 at the 2014 IFA Shield.

Since Sen's first I-League season as coach, Mohun Bagan have the numbers to back their reputation as the most consistent team in Indian football. No team that has been a part of three I-League seasons including the ongoing one has scored more than Bagan's 74 goals, conceded fewer than their 33, won more than their 23 games, or lost fewer than their five.

They won their first national league in 13 years in 2015, and then finished just two points behind the team that has matched their stats most perfectly - Bengaluru FC have 68 goals scored, 38 conceded in 23 wins and eight defeats across the same time -- in the league the following year.

They made up by winning the Federation Cup that year, and have been the form team of the I-League this year as well.

Their first four matches made it the easiest draw by far, though, and Tuesday's performance against DSK Shivajians is further proof that there's still a fair amount of work to be done by Sen, especially with AFC Cup engagements beginning at the end of the month. Sen is a methodical and realistic coach, and he will make a quick note of how their performance across the first five matches has gone from good, very good, emphatic, gritty to average.

Mohun Bagan's biggest strength tends to be the flanks, with Norde from the left and Katsumi Yusa from the right hugging the touchlines and interchanging positions to vary the supply for Darryl Duffy and Jeje Lalpekhlua.

For DSK Shivajians, Nirmal Chhetri took care of Norde and Jerry Lalrinzuala actually ventured forward a lot more than his opposite number despite starting in defence.

Dave Rogers got his team to play short passes and attack the relatively inexperienced Bagan defence in good numbers, and they asked a lot of questions of the likes of Bikramjit Singh, Pritam Kotal and Eduardo Ferreira.

There was even a disallowed goal for the home side that looked perfectly legitimate at first glance, and Sen's symbolic admission of surrender came when he replaced Jeje with Prabir Das with more than a quarter of an hour to go.

There was more energy about the visitors towards the end of the match, but Subhashish Bose and Katsumi both were denied by a mixture of luck and some determined defending. Both teams had chances in the second half, but Shivajians had the better of both possession as well as meaningful openings.

The draw still keeps Mohun Bagan three points clear of their nearest rivals atop the points table, but it brought their perfect start to the 2017 campaign to a halt. It has also given the other teams a chance to catch up with one of only three teams yet to be beaten in this year's I-League.

Those other two teams come up next against Mohun Bagan in the beginning of February. It is impossible to predict if Aizawl FC and East Bengal will both still be unbeaten by the time they come up against Bagan, but they would take a lot of heart from some chinks that were visible in the Mohun Bagan armour in Balewadi on Tuesday.

Mending these will be Sen's immediate concern, once his team have got their AFC Cup campaign up and running.