ATK Mohun Bagan rocked up to the opener of the 2021-22 season without any kind of proper pre-season. They had been dismantled in the AFC Cup by Uzbekistan's FC Nasaf Qarshi late in September and then just disappeared off the public radar. They played no friendlies, they didn't field a squad, reserves or otherwise, in the Durand Cup. While every other club in the division took pains to arrange game time with each other, Bagan just shrugged their shoulders. Like last year, coach Antonio Habas had felt there was nothing outside his squad that would prepare them better for the start of the season.
The season opener more or less vindicated his decision. In their first match of any kind in two months, Bagan toyed with Kerala Blasters en-route to an easy 4-2 win. What shone through most was a phenomenon that looks like it will define this season -- the Boumous-Krishna connection.
Bagan had bought Hugo Boumous for big money from the team that had pipped them to the league shield and the playoff trophy, and boy did he put on a show under the Friday night lights.
It took him under two minutes to make an impression on the match, and the scoreboard. Drifting in off the left, he floated in a dangerous-looking cross that quickly became a soft, controversial goal. As the ball curved in, looking for Roy Krishna, the striker made a movement towards the ball but couldn't connect. He had, though, been clearly offside at the time and the goal shouldn't really have stood. Stand it did, and Boumous was off the mark.
Boumous and Krishna kept looking for each other, and three minutes after Kerala's fine equaliser (made by KP Rahul, finished by Sahal Abdul Samad), they did so tellingly. Upon receiving the ball high up the pitch, Krishna tapped the ball back to Boumous and spun in behind the defence. Boumous immediately slid in a through ball that took everyone in the opposition out of the equation. Krishna got to the ball, got fouled by Albino Gomes, and duly converted the spotkick. The best part about the whole move, though? The absolute certainty -- Krishna never once looked back after the initial pass and spin, and Boumous didn't have a doubt where he had to give the ball.
With Blasters threatening another equaliser, the two stepped up again. A harmless looking long ball punted up field. Krishna knocking it on into Boumous' path. Boumous' holding off Bijoy Varghese like he wasn't there and then nutmegging Gomes in goal. These two were making it look way too easy.
We had seen glimpses in the AFC Cup Group stages, but the first 45 minutes of the ISL season proved it beyond doubt - Boumous and Krishna are going to have a lot of fun playing together.
And to think none of those three were even the best goal of the day. That went to Liston Colaco, a player the late great Novy Kapadia would have delighted in describing as a 'tricky customer'. Colaco had been playing left midfield in Habas' adventurous 3-4-3 formation and had found plenty of joy down his flank against an ageing Harmanjot Khabra. A few minutes into the second half, he stepped up to show his class. Krishna was involved, of course he was, but his role was minimal... just move the ball onto Colaco's feet. What followed was genius -- a first touch steeped in arrogance, Khabra utterly unsure of what to do, and a second which sent the ball in a glorious, unstoppable, arc into the far top corner.
As the game advanced, you could see Colaco was starting to get onto the same wavelength as the Boumous-Krishna connection.
Kerala did score again (Jorge Pereyra Diaz finishing neatly off a gorgeous ball from Adrian Luna), but the stand out moment post the Colaco goal was a substitution Bagan made. Bringing David Williams on, whilst holding a comfortable 4-2 lead. The bench strength to be able to do that... they hadn't even had Tiri, or Michael Soosairaj, in the matchday squad. This is a serious unit.
At the end of the match both Boumous and Habas said the same thing... that they can be better, much better. They weren't pulling anyone's leg, they actually had a point. All game, their defense had been uncharacteristically sloppy, they had missed quite a few easy chances, and they had been lucky to not concede a penalty. You could see that Colaco and Manvir Singh were/are still working their way into aligning with Boumous and Krishna. They hadn't even needed Williams to do anything.
And that's what really should scare everyone else in the league -- the realisation that this display, all four-goals-and-17638-chances created of it, was ATK Mohun Bagan in second gear.