Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan have been inarguably the two most consistent teams across the last three seasons of Indian football, and much of that has reflected in the kind of formations and teams they play with. Sanjoy Sen came into this I-League rivalry's latest edition with the experience of winning three of the four previous meetings, while Albert Roca was at the helm of Bengaluru for the very first time.
The teams they fielded also had the consistency you expect from both gentlemen - Roca with an adventurous 4-3-3, with Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri playing either side of Daniel Lalhlimpuia, and Sen with his more favoured 4-2-3-1, with Souvik Chakraborti and Sehnaj Singh operating in the centre of midfield.
Neither side looked inadequate at first glance, and there were no immediate clues about how the match might pan out, though a fan did quip on social media that "even a toddler can predict" the latter's team composition.
The I-League has reached a stage where every point and goal is worth fighting for, especially for teams still in with a mathematical possibility of fighting for the title. That nervous energy appeared to seep through to both teams, especially in the first half. While Bagan appeared keen on exploiting the height of Balwant Singh and Darryl Duffy playing just behind him with a number of long balls, Bengaluru were guilty of over-reliance on captain Sunil Chhetri by feeding him the ball on the left, but rarely with enough players appearing to support him.
Roca, as is his wont, showed greater tactical flexibility, as the match wore on. At one early stage, he was playing a 3-4-1-2, with Cameron Watson dropping to sweeper, and allowing the wing-backs to operate as wingers, with Chhetri dropping just behind Udanta and Daniel. For Bagan, the most adventurous phase for them came midway through the second half, when Sony Norde pushed into a more central position, allowing left-back Subhasish Bose to push forward. However, when Bose was sent off for a second bookable offence with more than 20 minutes to play, Sen was quick to balance out the side by sending in Prabir Das to bolster the midfield instead of Duffy.
The men that stood tall
The player of the match award went to former Mohun Bagan goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya, and it was no less than what he deserved for a commanding performance in goal for the champions. Bhattacharya has long played in the shadows of teammates, interning for the longest time under Vinay Singh at former champions Churchill Brothers, before a year with Bagan in 2012-13. He has been a journeyman of sorts before his latest loan spell in Bengaluru, and a couple of his stretches on Saturday prevented what would have been certain goals.
The main threat to his net all night appeared to be Scotsman Darryl Duffy, who was outstanding on a night when the other two inspirational attacking foreigners Sony Norde and Katsumi Yusa both appeared a bit flat. Duffy peppered Arindam with two ferocious shots in the first half, and also picked the ball up from the centre of the field in first-half injury time and took on the entire Bengaluru defence, before appearing to have gotten caught up in two minds about passing or shooting. There's no doubt the personal award would have been Duffy's if any of his shots or his incisive balls in the opposition half had resulted in a winner for Bagan on the night.
A tale of two coaches
Sanjoy Sen and Albert Roca both agreed the score accurately reflected the cadence of the match, and their body language through the game was indicative of the same. Sen felt Mohun Bagan played much better in the first half, and through most of the first 45 minutes, he was right by the touchline, exhorting his team and communicating with them. Roca spent the same time sitting quietly in his seat, arms folded in a pensive gesture.
The second half saw more purpose from the hosts, and the postures of the coaches were a direct inversion of how they had been. Sen sat by the bench and calculated his next move, while Roca was right by the pitch.
The only difference between the two men in charge was their reaction when asked about the officiating by referee CR Srikrishna. Sen admitted he wasn't in the best position to say why Katsumi Yusa's goal was disallowed, nor why Subhasish Bose was sent off. Roca, after initially asking the reporter concerned what he thought of the refereeing, confessed that while he thought Sunil Chhetri was brought down in the second half within sight of goal, and should have got a penalty and earned Mohun Bagan a red card right there, he also felt he couldn't see why the Bagan goal was disallowed, surmising whether there was a case of handling the ball or a foul.
Not over yet
It was a match that had the makings of a classic, yet rarely soared to the quality the two teams were expected to produce. This was in part due to the situation of the league as it stands, and the rest due to the self-doubts surrounding either side.
While Bagan looked more dangerous whenever they got into the opposition half, Sen later confessed that the biggest positive for him was the performance of the defence, particularly during set-pieces.
And while Bengaluru put together some sumptuous bits of play, retaining possession for long periods, and using the width of the field, Roca admitted that his team lacked quality in the final third.
This was the first goalless match between the two teams. Another count on which it stayed consistent was the number of fouls and cards - six previous matches had produced 29 yellow cards, more or less the same average as the five yellow cards and a red in this match.
The stakes will get higher in three days' time, with AFC Cup progression out of the group stages potentially at stake. Better finishing and calmer heads will be needed. If there is to be a winner, that team will take a lot of confidence into the return leg of the league on April 1.
Bring it on!