When asked, in an interview by goal.com, to react to his selection in the 42 man preliminary squad for the Indian team, Mehtab’s reply was fairly modest, “I owe it to Almighty, without His blessings I wouldn’t have earned this call-up.” Aptly nicknamed ‘Double Cylinder’ in acknowledgement of his tirelessness and work ethic, he has been one of the best performers in the I-League and certainly the most consistent. However, success at the national level eluded him but under the new coach Armando Colaco, he has finally been provided the platform to prove his mettle.
Ignored by Houghton
For the former Mohun Bagan player, it has been a long wait. After making his debut in 2005, great things were expected from the central midfielder. But to say that former coach Bob Houghton unfairly treated him would be a gross understatement. Having made up his mind to work only with a select group of players, perhaps with an intention of bringing about continuity in the set-up, Houghton consistently overlooked the top performers in the I-League through his tenure. Mehtab, not fortunate enough to be among the chosen ones, continued to put in one stellar performance after another, often singlehandedly carrying East Bengal through matches, not just for a tournament or season, but the best part of 4 years; only to be met with disappointment every time the national team was announced.
But a change in the head coach of the national team has brought about a change in Mehtab’s fortunes. Colaco has made some smart moves since taking over as the manager, the careless “I’m going to make India play like Barcelona” comment excluded of course, and one among them is to give the consistent performers in the I-League a chance to play for the country. Mehtab was probably the first name on this list and was straight away given the s stage that was denied to him for years and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
Fantastic performance against Qatar
Qatar was perhaps a fitting location for Mehtab to get a certain degree of redemption, as not so long ago it hosted the Asian Cup where the 25 year old was inexplicably excluded from the squad for India’s biggest tournament in more than 2 decades. Fitter and faster teams like Australia and South Korea ran rings around the Indian midfield and the presence of a tenacious midfielder like Mehtab was solely missed.
Playing in the centre of midfield in a straight forward 4-4-2 formation, Mehtab put in a man of the match performance in India’s 2-1 win over the much fancied Qatar, albeit in a friendly match or rather practice match to be very specific. Played in a stadium that is a replica of Old Trafford, India got off to a dream start when Sunil Chhetri slotted home the penalty kick, which was won by Debabrata Roy. India continued to pile on the pressure even after they took the lead and was always in control of the game. In the 73rd minute Sushil Singh doubled India’s lead before Ibrahim Khalfan scored what proved to be a mere consolation for the hosts. India, hence, recorded their most memorable win in recent times and hopefully marks the beginning of a successful era under Colaco.
New coach, New methods
But it wasn’t just the result that the fans can be optimistic about. “We are improving day by day. That’s important. The boys showed they are adapting fast to the new style. The game is all about ball possession and once we have the ball, we shouldn’t give it away easily.” The mentality marks a distinct change in approach from the Bob Houghton days when the hopeful long ball was the order of the day, no matter who the opposition was.
And the benefits of the new system were for all to see. India dominated the game from the kick-off to the final whistle. Wave after wave of relentless attacks ensured that Qatar was never able to relieve the pressure except for a brief spell towards the end of the first half. “It’s not the question of winning against Qatar that pleased me, but the way in which we did it. We’ve managed to adapt our style of play in a very short period of time“, Colaco remarked to Gulf News. Mehtab also played a vital role against UAE as nine-men India fought valiantly in second half.
Mehtab – Perfect for Colaco’s style
Mehtab in Colaco’s formation becomes a vital player. He is the quintessential central midfielder and the closest India has to a complete midfielder. A tireless runner, Mehtab thrives in the deep lying playmaker role. His comfort on the ball and ability to pick out passes makes him perfect to initiate plays for the team. Also, since the attacking midfielder and the forwards are certain to be marked tightly, he is the player with the most amount of time on the ball and it is necessary that he use it effectively.
Colaco has repeatedly emphasized the importance of keeping possession and for this it is necessary that Mehtab doesn’t give the ball away cheaply. His ability to produce spectacular long-range goals and ability from free kicks is an added bonus. Capable of both initiating attacks and shielding the back four, he will undoubtedly be a central figure in Colaco’s plans.
At the age of 25, one has to believe that Mehtab’s best years still lie ahead of him. After years of rejection, he finds himself a key player in the national team and in a position and style of play that will suit his game. Already a legend in the eyes of the Red and Gold followers, Mehtab now has the opportunity to make a mark in Indian colors as well.