Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal: A tense derby awaits in the 2023 Durand Cup final


East Bengal FC vs Mohun Bagan Super Giant. The Salt Lake stadium, Kolkata. The Boro Match. The 132nd Durand Cup final. Asia’s oldest football tournament.

It really doesn’t get any more historic in Indian football than this. Two clubs, two fanbases that share 32 victories of the Durand Cup between them (16 each); a rivalry steeped in tradition. It’s a familiar stage, having faced each other 10 times in the Durand Cup final (4 wins each and twice joint winners). Yet, on the pitch, there is something very new brewing as Carles Cuadrat and Juan Ferrando battle once more in the Kolkata Derby.

It represents an opportunity for either club to win a competition they’ve not won for a decade and more. This is the Durand Cup final everyone was waiting for…

…Or not?

There’s no way to sugarcoat this: It is very likely that we’re about to witness 90 minutes of attritional football, with either a set-piece, individual skill or even penalties to decide the destination of the trophy.

The proof? Exactly three weeks ago, when both sides cancelled each other out and were reduced to speculative efforts from range. It took Nandhakumar Sekar’s best Arjen Robben impression to break the deadlock on the hour mark, curling one with the instep of his left foot after outfoxing Anirudh Thapa on the edge of the box. East Bengal held on, and Cuadrat had given the red-and-gold side of the Maidan their first win over their rivals in eight attempts.

Given this is still a ‘pre-season’ tournament, both sides have evolved quickly – with both Ferrando and Cuadrat unlikely to field similar starting XIs as they did in the group stage. Yet, the magnitude of the occasion might spawn a cautious approach, as the previous record of both managers in finals demonstrates.

How did they get here?

East Bengal began the tournament with a 2-2 draw and their most recent semifinal ‘victory’ was a 2-2 draw. Sandwiched amongst those games was classic Cuadrat fare – two 1-0s that saw them top Group A and a 2-1 win over Gokulam Kerala in the quarterfinal courtesy an own goal.

Yet, as Cuadrat opted for an even more defensive approach in the semifinal (defenders Nishu Kumar and Jose Pardo played in midfield), East Bengal found themselves 2-0 down against NorthEast United FC courtesy the brilliance of Konsam Phalguni Singh. This was not classic Cuadrat fare as the game descended into chaos – Mahesh Singh’s late deflected goal and Nandha’s injury-time equalizing header setting up penalties. Parthib Gogoi saw Prabhsukhan Gill save his penalty (illegally) and crashed the retake onto the crossbar, with Nandha capping off the win with a calmly-taken fifth penalty – sending East Bengal through to the final. Welcome to the madness of the Maidan, Mr. Cuadrat.

Mohun Bagan had a decidedly easier time en route the final than their rivals, finishing second in their group (they were nearly ousted by Mohammedan SC, who earned a 6-0 win when they needed a seven-goal margin). That loss to East Bengal was their only one in the whole tournament, defeating Bangladesh Army and Punjab FC in the group stage, before a disconcertingly comfortable 3-1 win over Mumbai City FC in the quarterfinal.

Juan Ferrando and Manolo Marquez served up plenty of headlines in the semifinal with Bagan triumphing 2-1 at the end of a controversial game. FC Goa took an early lead through Noah Sadaoui’s new-found lethality but Bagan were gifted a route back into the game with a penalty that ought to have been a free-kick outside the box. Jason Cummings made no mistake from the spot, allowing Armando Sadiku to announce himself as a Bagan cult hero with a stunning long-range strike on the hour mark. There was time for Vishal Kaith to make an injury-time save to deny Goa, and Bagan were through.

What are the key battles in the final?

It will come down to personnel, but there’s no denying that Nandha has been instrumental for East Bengal. If he can isolate one of Subhashish Bose or Thapa, he could very well wreak havoc. Lalchungnunga, having earned a call-up to the national side, appeared a weak link in East Bengal’s semifinal win over NEUFC, and one of Sadiku or Cummings could capitalize.

The true battle is midfield, where Hugo Boumous, Sahal Abdul Samad and Thapa will probably face Borja Herrera, Saul Crespo and Souvik Chakrabarti. The trio cancelled each other out in the previous derby, but retain the quality within themselves to turn a game at a moment’s notice.

If it does come down to penalties – Gill and Kaith have already proved their mettle, although the Bagan keeper might have the slight edge.

How will they lineup?

East Bengal FC Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Prabhsukhan Gill (GK); Nishu Kumar, Lalchungnunga, Elsey Jordan, Harmanjot Khabra; Saul Crespo, Souvik Chakrabarti; Mahesh Singh, Borja Herrera, Nandhakumar Sekar; Javi Siverio

Mohun Bagan SG Predicted XI (4-2-3-1): Vishal Kaith (GK); Subhasish Bose, Hector Yuste, Anwar Ali, Asish Rai; Anirudh Thapa, Sahal Abdul Samad; Ashique Kuruniyan, Hugo Boumous, Dimi Petratos; Armando Sadiku

What is at stake?

Plenty, for East Bengal FC. Not as plenty, for Mohun Bagan SG.

The green-and-maroon side of the Maidan only have to rewind a few months for their last trophy, when ATK Mohun Bagan won the 2022-23 Indian Super League. A first Durand Cup win since 2000 would be nice, but not necessary – especially with their sights on the AFC Cup and the forthcoming ISL season. Bragging rights in the Kolkata derby however, are necessary, and Juan Ferrando will ensure his players are keenly aware of this fact.

For East Bengal, this is existential. Lose, and their tag of perennial bridesmaids will be cemented further – all the more painful if it’s their old enemy pouring the concrete. Their last major national trophy was the 2012 Federation Cup and their last Durand Cup win came in 2004 – far too long for a giant of Indian football. Carles Cuadrat and his players have a shot at writing themselves into history, but only if they keep their heads in the present.

The 391st Kolkata Derby is here, and with three trophies on offer, is ever more meaningful.

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