Bengaluru FC vs ATK Mohun Bagan: An old rivalry with a new flavour
The teams shared one-goal wins in the league phase and if ATK Mohun Bagan did good business in January, Bengaluru FC have got their confidence back
Theirs was the clash of old and new, between football royalty and a team determined to show birth pangs were what happened to others. Bello Razzaq’s late equaliser against Bengaluru FC helped Mohun Bagan steal an I-League in 2014-15. Next season, the tables were turned. In 2017, CK Vineet ensured that the injured Sunil Chhetri was not missed with an extra-time brace that made the newbies Federation Cup winners at Mohun Bagan’s expense.
But Bengaluru FC, who turn 10 in July, go into Saturday’s final of the ninth Indian Super League (ISL) here as the older club because while Mohun Bagan turn 134 this year, ATK Mohun Bagan were formed in January 2020. Yet, you understood why ATK Mohun Bagan captain Pritam Kotal, part of all the campaigns mentioned above, called it a “different derby or its equivalent” and why Sunil Chhetri said, “Mohun Bagan and then ATK Mohun Bagan have been our most important opponents.”
In Roy Krishna, Prabir Das, Sandesh Jhingan and Jayesh Rane, Bengaluru FC have players who were with ATK Mohun Bagan while Ashique Kuruniyan, back in training after missing the second-leg of the semi-final against Hyderabad FC, has moved the other way. Ex-friends for 90 minutes, said Kotal at a beachside resort on Friday before he and Chhetri hand-slapped and stood in front of a poster that had both. Apart from ‘friendly fire’ that could light up a contest between teams that have found form at the right time, Manvir Singh will be trying to complete a comeback from injury by winning an ISL final for the first time in three attempts. And Glan Martins – he, whose energy is infectious, according to Carl McHugh – bring cheer to Goa in a season Liston Colaco lost form and FC Goa couldn’t regain theirs.
In the overload of media interviews that lasted longer than the final would, tie-breakers included, NorthEast United played an interesting cameo. “On Christmas Day, after the defeat against NorthEast, I told my general director that 100% we will play the final,” said ATK Mohun Bagan coach Juan Ferrando. It was against the cellar team of ISL 9 that Bengaluru FC began a 10-match winning run including two wins against league shield winners Mumbai City FC. That meant while with 11 successive wins, an ISL record, Mumbai went home, Bengaluru FC are one game away from winning their eighth trophy.
“I didn’t want people to think I had come here on a holiday,” said Simon Grayson. A player under ISL winner John Gregory at Aston Villa and Gareth Southgate’s club teammate, Grayson said he had holidayed in India on the invitation of ISL CEO Martin Bain. “Little would I have thought that Prabir Das, Roy Krishna and Javi Hernandez who featured in one of the games I saw would be in my team now.”
Grayson said it took him till the start of 2023 to know 70% of his Indian players. “Before that I knew one, no two,” he said, looking at Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. But what stayed true through the wobble and the wonder run was belief. “Belief in myself, belief that the players would understand me and belief that they would be able to carry out the instructions. Even when we lost 0-3 to Hyderabad, we knew we were close to turning it around.” What also helped was not overcomplicating things then, said Sandhu.
ATK Mohun Bagan too had dips in form and a slew of first-teamers injured for the season. But they coped. “In every crisis, we learnt,” said Ferrando. The Catalan sacrificed playing out from the back, focused on defensive solidity and trusted in their strength in depth. “The quality of this team is exceptional,” said Kotal. It is a trait ATK have transferred to ATK Mohun Bagan. Like with Bengaluru FC, they also have leaders across the pitch. Such as Kotal who, Ferrando said, wanted to take the last penalty against Hyderabad FC.
The teams shared one-goal wins in the league phase and if ATK Mohun Bagan did good business in January, Bengaluru FC have got their confidence back. “We have decent players who can hurt them,” said Grayson. This was not in response to Kotal’s pronouncement that “we are the best” but it is what you would want to hear before a final.