Mohun Bagan beat Pailan Arrows 3-1 at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata on Sunday, October 23rd, in their opening i-League match of the 2011-12 season. The winning start was a welcome change for the Mariners, after either drawing or losing each of their opening two matches in the last seven seasons. The match also marked a winning start for the new coaching staff, led by Technical Director Subrata Bhattacharjee, and coach Prasanta Banerjee. After the bitterly disappointing campaign in the recently concluded Federation Cup, this win finally gave millions of Mohun Bagan fans all over the world something to celebrate. One hopes that this is only the first of many such happy evenings during the course of the marathon i-League.

The picture wasn’t bright, however, for a long time during the match on Sunday. A fairly large crowd had assembled at the huge stadium, perhaps to welcome the return of Subrata Bhattacharjee at the helm of affairs at Mohun Bagan; there was also a small but noisy section of Arrows supporters – this was, after all their “home” match! The Pailan team, comprising of talented youngsters from all over India under the tutelage of veteran coach Sukhvinder Singh, started brightly, and stunned the majority of spectators with a goal in the 7th minute. Goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee was partly to blame for the goal, allowing a long-range effort from Lalrozama Fanai almost from the by-line to beat him in flight, ricochet off the post and off his body to roll into the net.

Mohun Bagan tried to shrug off the shocking start and made concerted efforts to attack the Arrows goal, with midfielders Manish Maithani, Jewel Raja and Hudson Lima Silva, aided by full backs Dhanrajan and Rahim Nabi making a few raids on the opposition defence. However Odafe Okolie and Sunil Chhetri – the two Bagan strikers, displayed a distinct lack of understanding at times, and the Arrows defence by and large held firm. In fact a couple of times the Arrows boys hit hard on the counter attack, and once Sangram had to come out of his box to save the situation.

There were some chances at the other end during the first half. Mohun Bagan forced a few corners, mostly taken by Lima, but to no avail. In the 16th minute a splendid through from Maithani sent Nabi clear, but he was adjudged off-side. 5 minutes later a Lima shot troubled the Arrows keeper, but Odafe hit the rebound out. On the half hour a Lima free-kick found Maithani, but he headed wide. Two minutes later a good move put Gouranga Dutta in the clear, but he muffed the chance. Then Odafe had a couple of half-chances, but nothing much came off them. And then, on a quick break, the Arrows boys split open the Bagan defence and caused some panic, but somehow Anwar saved the situation.

The last few minutes of the half were dominated by Mohun Bagan, who seemed to be improving slowly but steadily. Maithani wasted two opportunities, once shooting out, and once shooting hard but straight into the keeper just before the breather. The half ended with Bagan still trailing by one goal.

 The second half started the way the first half had ended, with Mohun Bagan dominating possession. Jewel did well to find Maithani in the box, but his shot was just out. Then a counter attack by Arrows again caught the Bagan defence napping, but Sangram saved the day. Then Odafe barged into the box but his shot was saved. Somehow the Arrows defence were coping with all Mohun Bagan had to throw at them.

 The second half was about 5 minutes old when a roar went round the stadium – Bagan’s icon Jose Barreto – who was not fully fit, was brought in by Subrata Bhattacharjee, in place of Maithani. Immediately there was a distinct change in the tempo of game, and in the general atmosphere in the stadium. Barreto started by setting up Odafe with a splendid pass, but Odafe muffed the chance. However, the Arrows boys were visibly wary of the Barreto-Odafe-Chhetri trio, and became more and more defensive in their approach, allowing Bagan to dominate the midfield. For ten minutes the game was played mostly in and around the Pailan box, but somehow the Arrows held on.

Then came the second substitution. Ashim Biswas replaced Gouranga, who had quite a forgettable match, and immediately the Bagan attack became even more threatening; a goal seemed only a matter of time. It finally came in the 21st minute of the second half. Nabi found Lima on the left, Lima side-stepped a couple of defenders and sent in a lofted cross and Odafe banged it in almost nonchalantly. The stadium exploded, it was finally 1-1.

5 minutes later it was Lima again who set up Jewel, but Jewel failed to control the ball. Almost immediately afterwards Ashim received a wonderful pass from Dhanjaran, moved along the right, cut in and crossed back with pin-point accuracy to find Odafe who made no mistake. The net bulged – it was 2-1. At last Mohun Bagan were ahead.

Arrows tried to hit back bravely, but the momentum was now very much with Mohun Bagan. Sangram did have to make a very good save once, but mostly it was Bagan threatening the Arrows goal. Then in the 90th minute Odafe collected a pass from Dhanrajan in the Arrows half, beat a couple of defenders, cut in, entered the box, slipped and almost fell but recovered instantly to shoot the ball between two more defenders, past the hapless keeper. The ball hit the base of the post to the keeper’s right and entered the net. It was 3-1, and Odafe had completed a superb hat-trick. All three goals were well taken, but the third was by far the best of the evening. Saurav Chakraborty, making his Mohun Bagan debut, replaced Dhanrajan for the last three minutes or so, but by then the Arrows boys had finally run out of steam. Mohun Bagan cantered home to register a winning start to the league.

Line-up: Sangram Mukherjee (21); R Dhanrajan (6) [Saurav Chakraborty (3) 91st minute], Kingshuk Debnath (4), Anwar Ali (5), Syed Rahim Nabi (19); Gouranga Dutta (30) [Ashim Biswas (12) 63rd minute], Jewel Raja (23), Manish Maithani (24) [Jose Barreto (10) 51st minute], Hudson Lima Silva (27); Odafe Okolie (9), Sunil Chhetri (11).

Goals: Odafe Okolie – 3

 Man-of-the-Match – Odafe Okolie.

Picture Courtesy: Bartaman

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