While it might be premature to call it a turning point in the season, East Bengal's 2-1 defeat at home to Churchill Brothers on the same night that Aizawl FC came away with a 1-0 win over DSK Shivajians in Pune has put the north-east outfit two points clear at the top of the table. They have opened up an eight-point gap over third-placed Mohun Bagan, who have two matches in hand over both Aizawl and East Bengal.
In a busy midweek of matches, sandwiched between key games for all the teams in the fray, there appeared to be some errors made by East Bengal, and the same moves paid off for Aizawl FC on the night, though in opposite ends of the country. It's always easier in hindsight, but here's what the teams did right and wrong on a day that gave the title chase a new direction altogether.
East Bengal tinkered with their defensive combination yet again, though only coach Trevor Morgan would be in a position to tell if starting with Anwar as centre-back ahead of Gurwinder Singh was tactical or just to give the latter a break from what has been a hectic season. Mohammed Rafique started in midfield as East Bengal were quick off the blocks.
Two errors in defence allowed Churchill get into the game and punish the hosts for their lack of imagination going forward. In the end, the two first-half strikes were just about enough to consign East Bengal to their second defeat of the league, and the first at home.
Aizawl, in contrast, started with their strongest possible eleven, keeping the crux of the team that has been performing well for them in home matches in recent weeks. Strictly organisation-wise, they had Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al Amna play a little deeper than he normally does, and it was done to keep a very well-organised Shivajians midfield at bay.
If the match at the Barasat Stadium had been about physical challenges and overpowering the opposition with numbers, there was a bit more finesse in the game between Aizawl and Shivajians, though that could be down to playing at the natural surface of the Balewadi Stadium, which always enables teams to keep the ball along the ground and play more accurate passes on the whole.
Tactics played a big part overall
East Bengal were caught out by Churchill and their pressing game early on. That is what resulted in the two goals, both of which saw Anthony Wolfe play a key role, first by chasing down seemingly lost causes, and then holding on to the ball before releasing Ansumanah Kromah.
In the first half, East Bengal were far too direct with their strategy, with the hope that the tall combination of Robin Singh and Chris Payne would win most of the aerial duels and create chances. However, this effectively eliminated the midfield, and also allowed Churchill the luxury of packing their defence in numbers.
The only goal that East Bengal scored came through the Robin-Payne combination, but all of it was along the ground. Perhaps they needed to do that more often, especially against a visiting team that seemed nervous as the match drew to a close, but rarely had to deal with defence-splitting passes.
Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil knew exactly what his team needed going into their match, assuming someone must have updated him on the final score from Barasat in a match that finished over half an hour before Aizawl's game kicked off. Aizawl have the superior head-to-head against East Bengal, and keeping that in mind, they started cautiously. The first half was mostly about Aizawl soaking up the pressure, and right-back Ashutosh Mehta keeping a close eye on Spaniard Juan Quero, who typically likes to cut in from the left with his bursts of speed.
In the second half, Aizawl upped the ante by committing more players into attack, and had the first real half-chance when Alfred Jaryan picked out Laldanmawia Ralte with a terrific long ball, but the right-winger's cross was intercepted by the Shivajians defence. Jamil's changes were positive too, bringing on Lalmuankima and Laltanpuia to ensure the tempo on the pitch remained unaffected. Fittingly, the goal came from one of Lalmuankima's energetic bursts down the left flank, with Ralte scoring the second huge winner of the season after his strike when Aizawl had beaten East Bengal 1-0 on February 20.
Temperament was the key
Any match involving a big team from Kolkata and Goa is usually beset with heightened passions and emotions, and the East Bengal-Churchill clash was no exception. Perhaps it was also the amateurish nature of the goals conceded, but East Bengal lost the battle of keeping their cool, and it only became worse as the match wore on. Captain Robert Lalthlamuana had a tough time containing Anthony Wolfe, especially in the second half, and often ended up conceding soft fouls where he would have been better served just keeping his cool.
Ivan Bukenya and Robin Singh had yellow cards flashed at them, as the heat of the moment got to the pre-match favourites. Aizawl FC, to give Khalid Jamil credit, have maintained their composure remarkably well through some tough encounters, and Pune was no exception.
There were a couple of potential flashpoints, one in the first half where Ashutosh Mehta and Nirmal Chettri appeared to get into a heated argument and had to be separated. That was quelled by some sensible team mates, as was a situation at the fag end of the game, when Shivajians were about to take a corner and the home side's Sasa Kolunija complained about defender Kingsley Eze pushing him inside the box. Both players were asked to cool things down, and Aizawl would survive a few onslaughts on their goal to come away as worthy winners.