Mohun Bagan and success were synonymous once. These days though, it is easier to equate the club’s name with failure as the Green & Maroons endured their fourth consecutive season without a major trophy. This season began with a lot of promise with Mohun Bagan fans hoping that their young-ish team would break the barren run under the tutelage of Karim Bencharifa. The season eventually turned into nightmare as the Moroccan coach, architecht of Bagan’s last successful period, lost his reputation among fans as well as the club’s infamous officials.
When the season began there was optimism all around. The Mariners began their Calcutta League campaign with a thumping 4-1 win over Railways FC. The Kolkata crowd, ever polarized in their opinion, went to the length of comparing new recruit Adil Khan, who scored a stunning goal on debut, with Chelsea star David Luiz. The wave of optimism crashed in a matter of days as Mohun Bagan displayed two abject performances to slump in consecutive draws in the local league. In a tournament where the margin of error is very less, dropping points so early in the campaign eventually proved to be a negative catalyst for the Mariners. There were some good results after the opening victory – a 4-0 thrashing of Police AC and a 3-0 win over Aryan Club, which has troubled big clubs in recent times. However, dropping points in two matches was a major set-back as Bagan lost the KFL title to bitter rivals East Bengal in the end. Mohun Bagan’s squad was strong enough to mount a title challenge in the domestic league but absence of Odafa Okalie, combined with costly draws threw a spanner to their plans.
This season’s I-League was one of the most exciting editions till date. The title race went down the wire but the relegation battle was even more nerve wrecking. Attendances went up through the roof as two promoted clubs Mohammedan and Rangdajied FC brought hordes of people to the grounds along with Bengaluru FC eking out a fan base in the Garden City. Karim Bencharifa’s side sadly, didn’t have much part of play in the title race. Instead, the club spent most of the season in the bottom half of the table and at one point was in actual danger of relegation. A case of morning showing how the day would turn out came when Mohun Bagan traveled to Bengaluru to take on the JSW owned team in the latter’s first even I-League match. If the vociferous crowd in a stadium where HAL and ITI used to play in front of empty stands was the first surprise, the Mariners had another coming when the whistle went off. Ashly Westwood’s side was quite brilliant, playing a calculated and well-coordinated game while Mohun Bagan looked disjointed, tired and utterly clueless. It would be an ongoing theme later in the season. Bagan could have easily lost the opener but some poor finishing from BFC saw them earn an away point.
Losses would soon follow as the Mariners were outplayed in Pune against the local side while Sporting Clube de Goa dominated in Kolkata. The loss against Sporting preceded back to back wins over Salgoacar and Mumbai FC and an away draw against Dempo. This was probably the best spell of form from the Mariners in this season’s I-League. The most damning evidence of Mohun Bagan’s abject failure in this season’s I-League comes from the stat that the club didn’t win consecutive matches in the league since November start. The number of victories in this month was a meagre three, sandwiched between draws and losses. The worst games were played against new boys Rangdjied United. For the first time in the history of Indian football, a newly promoted club did a double over Mohun Bagan – winning 2-0 in Kolkata and 3-1 in Shillong.
The Federation Cup campaign was encouraging as Bagan reached their first semi-final in four years. However, when it mattered the most Mohun Bagan’s youngsters choked and the coach was tactically out-thought, losing out to eventual winners Churchill Brothers. The less said about their IFA Shield campaign, the better. Mariners had a golden chance of snapping their trophy less streak in Shield but they failed miserably and were bundled out in group stages.
Coach And Captain – Getting Many Things Wrong
Mohun Bagan didn’t have a team to challenge for I-League but neither did they have a team bad enough to fight for relegation or not win a single trophy this season. A significant burden of the blame will be on the shoulders of the coach and the captain. Bencharifa was never the most tactically astute coach in Indian football but this season, some of his decisions were absolutely baffling. Yusa Katsumi played his best games as a freely roaming attacking midfielder but the Moroccan used him time and again on the left wing – where the Japanese rarely found rhythm. Bencharifa also bafflingly played a number of player out of position. Pankaj Moula, an attacker was sometimes used as a winger and sometimes as midfielder. This change of position confused the poor youngster whose form dropped sharply as the season progressed. MP Zakeer has already been successful as a central midfielder but even he was used as a winger while upcoming and energetic wing-men like Ram Malik and Ujjal Hawladar were inexplicably benched when they were fit. Despite Kingshuk Debnath being consistent as a central defender Bencharifa at times chose to bench him to play his favorite Airborlang Khongjee, a player who himself was victim of frequent change of positions.
And then there was Odafa Okolie. With every passing game the Nigerian proved how utterly incapable he was to sport the same arm-band worn by Sailen Manna, Jarnail Singh, Chuni Goswami and Jose Ramirez Barreto in past. He rarely led from the front – which started even before a ball was picked as the captain chose to not attend pre-season campaign on time. His fitness has been a question mark in past three seasons but how committed he was to quickly return from an injury has also come under scanner this season. Odafa has lost his ability to turn with a sudden burst of pace – possibly his greatest weapon – and was easily marked out countless times this season. To make things worse, he was a problem off the field and his outburst against young Pritam Kotal was disgraceful.
Since the rule was enforced by AIFF, Mohun Bagan have usually monumentally bungled the transfers in Player of Asian Origin quota. Ryuji Sueoka was a good recruit but since he left one after another failure has happened. This season it was different. Katsumi Yusa was in his elements despite the team performing poorly around him. The Japanese is a hard-worker and played almost every match this season – a shocking exception for a club which has struggled with injuries in past half decade. Ever smiling, Katsumi has quickly become a fan favourite and his stock rose further thanks to a fantastic solo strike in the Kolkata derby. He did suffer from some patches of indifferent form but most of these matches came when he was played in an unfamiliar position of left-wing. Katsumi is young, relatively inexpensive, fit, technically gifted and a smart footballer. He does have some downsides – his composure in front of the goal has to improve and he tends to tumble down too easily at times. However, in him Mohun Bagan may have a player who can serve the club well in coming seasons.
Karim Bencharifa did get the defensive organization right this season, evident by Mohun Bagan’s excellent defensive numbers in I-League. Both Pritam Kotal and Souvik Ghosh performed admirably, especially the latter, playing out of his natural position. Kingshuk Debnath and Shilton Pal had a fantastic first half of the I-League season while Echezona was also good save two entirely avoidable red cards. Ram Malik performed well in patches but needs to be more consistent to really shine in Mohun Bagan.
Adil Khan spent most of the previous season on sidelines but it was expected that the sturdy midfielder would regain some of his best form under Karim Bencharifa. Adil however, was a monumental flop. The combative midfielder looked rusty, unfit and physically spent even when the season started. Most of the time he stayed on the field, he seemed like an accident waiting to happen. It was not a huge surprise that Mohun Bagan decided to part ways with him halfway into the season.
Eric Harrison Muranda was also a major disappointment while Sandip Nandy couldn’t show a slightest glimpse of his form from last season.
Mohun Bagan 6-0 Lajong FC (Federation Cup)
This was Mohun Bagan’s best Fed Cup campaign in quite a while and it reached its pinnacle during the thrashing of Lajong FC. Few expected this scoreline, given that the club from North East had thrashed former champions Salgaocar 4-0 in just the previous game. This was one game where everything clicked for Bagan.
Mohun Bagan 0-2 Rangdajied United (I-League)
Karim Bencharifa inexplicably fielded a defensive minded team when facing the North Eastern minnows in Kolkata. At that point, Rangdajied was looking favourites to get relegated while Mohun Bagan still had a fleeting chance of finishing in top half. Playing with two defensive midfielders the Mariners dished out an embarrassing performance and was completely routed.
Goal of the season
Katsumi Yusa v East Bengal
Bengaluru FC’s success this season bodes well for Indian football but for clubs like Mohun Bagan it has to serve as a wake-up call. Bagan no longer have the financial clout in the market like before and players these days seem to prefer a club with professional approach, rather than join the muddled atmosphere of Mohun Bagan. Frequent changing of coaches, infrastructure which is woefully out of date and a management which still lives in 1970s and 1980s have contributed to Mohun Bagan’s dismal fall from grace. Fans, often cited as the strongest point of Mohun Bagan, were also at the receiving end this year. On the auspicious day of Bengali New Year some fans were heckled and thrashed inside club premises simply because they were protesting against Bagan’s inept officials. Unless there is a sea change in the way the club is being run, Asia’s oldest club will keep losing relevance with every passing season.