It had to be them. It had to be him.
Mohun Bagan, champions of Asia’s oldest football tournament once more, with Dimi Petratos scoring in a final once more. Their 17th Durand Cup victory (first since 2000), now the most successful club in the tournament’s 132-year-old history and it came via 10-men winning 1-0 against the old enemy, East Bengal.
– Mohun Bagan Super Giant (@mohunbagansg) September 3, 2023
That East Bengal were fresh from a Kolkata Derby win three weeks ago was soon forgotten. That Anirudh Thapa was sent off on the hour mark to give East Bengal a man-advantage was barely noticeable. That the array of cards handed out, both to the players and staff, amidst all the brawls typical of this contest was nothing but a mere footnote.
Juan Ferrando’s side made sure of it, lifting their second trophy in a matter of months – it was ATK Mohun Bagan then, it is Mohun Bagan Super Giant now, but in the grand scheme of things, Bagan win, they always do. ‘Heritage’, as Jose Mourinho would put it.
61 minutes into the game though, Bagan’s air of invincibility was wearing thin.
It was a final that everyone had predicted – attritional, full of fouls and barely any football. Carles Cuadrat and Ferrando had conspired to cancel each out once again, although it was East Bengal’s rearguard action that was more impressive – especially after Jordan Elsey went off around the half-hour mark with an injury.
The out-of-possession formations flowed beautifully, but it meant that the first half had only two shots on goal. Nandhakumar Sekar spurned a gilt-edged chance after Anwar Ali’s poor clearance fell to him in the box and Petratos fired well over from the edge of the box.
… and then on the hour mark, Anirudh Thapa lost his head by trying to take off Javi Siverio’s – with a high boot. A second yellow for a player looking very uncomfortable as a combative, defensive #6 – and it was curtains. East Bengal were a man up, they had ended their Kolkata Derby hoodoo not three weeks prior, their defence was purring, Bagan’s attack was misfiring, and Mahesh Singh and Nandha were ready to bring it home. Cuadrat was ready to end their 11-year long curse of no major national trophies.
Surely, even Indian football’s perennial bridesmaids would not mess this up? As the tears of many a red-and-gold clad fan (who perhaps paid a sizeable premium for their tickets) after the game showed, they did.
Moments from the second half of the Grand Final of the #132ndEditionofIndianOilDurandCup between Emami East Bengal FC and Mohun Bagan Super Giant.#IndianOilDurandCupPoweredbyCoalIndia #DurandCup2023 #IndianFootballForwardTogether #ManyChampionsOneLegacy #Finals #EEBFCMBSG pic.twitter.com/0nuX5IObhg
– Durand Cup (@thedurandcup) September 3, 2023
There was not much on when Petratos led a counterattack in the 71st minute driving into East Bengal’s half. Having been shunted wide for much of the game and offering little with his crosses, it explains why Jose Pardo and Saul Crespo backed off the Bagan frontman. They were playing with fire. Anyone else, and maybe they had an excuse.
That was all it took. This was Petratos, the man who was involved in two-thirds of Bagan’s goals in their ISL-winning campaign last year and had scored in the final then as well. And he uncomplicated things in an hitherto complicated game – shifting the ball onto his left foot and letting fly. A slight deflection off Pardo (who committed a basic mistake in turning his back – as didd Crespo), a despairing dive from Prabhsukhan Gill, and the ball had nestled into the net. Mohun Bagan 1, East Bengal 0. Game over.
The Maidan have some legendary heroes, but just a little over a year into his career at Bagan, Petratos is already etching his name in beautiful Bengali script in the history books. For all of the money spent, all the new signings that have come in with big reputations, it was an old favourite that Ferrando had to fall back on – ‘Give it to Dimi and pray’.
And he delivered. Once the goal went in, Bagan settled brilliantly. They played 19 minutes of regulation time and 10 minutes of injury time a man down, with nary a doubt that it was their name on the trophy.
In contrast, East Bengal seemed to believe even stronger in a curse that would give Bela Guttman and Benfica a run for their money. Eleven years without a major national trophy and the fans had paid through the nose to witness their drought end, but instead witnessed their team meekly capitulate to the inevitability of Bagan.
Cuadrat packed his team with trophy-winners, but with Bagan’s heritage and invincibility staring back at them, they folded like a pack of cards. Simple passes were misplaced, crosses were overhit, target man Cleiton Silva even dropping deep in desperation – it mattered not. Bagan were going to win.
And they did. The whistle blew at full-time, and what some teams have decided is nothing more than a ‘pre-season’ trophy turned into three pieces of silverware set to be added to the most glittering trophy cabinet in Indian football.
In this 391st Kolkata derby, a match dripping with history, it was no surprise to see history repeating itself, was it?
Mohun Bagan Super Giant, champions.