ISL 2023-24: Has the Kolkata derby's landscape changed?
For the first time in the ISL, there is no clear favourite and definite underdog ahead of the Kolkata derby.
The Kolkata derby is the biggest game in Indian football. There is little rationale to debate this. There is also very little appetite to contest this fact.
Mohun Bagan Super Giant versus East Bengal FC is the undisputed gold standard fixture.
The Kolkata derby is an emotion, a festival, it’s culture. It means so many different things to different people that at the end of the day, it can barely be just another football game.
The challenge for the 22 players and the coaching staff involved is thus cutting off all the noise and somehow treating it like a football match.
In the recent past, one team has been able to rise beyond all the extras that come with this fixture and deliver what is the most important thing on the day. A victory.
Mohun Bagan Super Giant have won all six Kolkata derbies against East Bengal FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) making the gap between the two teams on the points table even more apparent.
The Mariners have won these derbies with an aggregate score of 15-2, trying to unleash an air of dominance on a fixture that by nature isn’t meant to sustain it.
But East Bengal FC fans had almost been made to forget what a Kolkata derby win feels like by the marauding Mariners until the rot was brought to a stunning halt in cup competitions.
Led by Carles Cuadrat, boosted by some shrewd signings and fueled by the relentless support from the fans to make the team succeed gave way to the first Kolkata derby win in four years in the Durand Cup. The victory also meant that the Red and Gold brigade finished above the Mariners in the group. But the Mariners didn’t have to wait long to give a reminder of their supremacy.
For Mohun Bagan Super Giant, ten-man Mohun Bagan Super Giant beat East Bengal FC in the final of the same tournament to win the cup and render the earlier victory a sense of hollowness.
For East Bengal FC, it was a kick in the teeth, a rude awakening from a dream which was painfully short-lived.
But months later, the Red and Gold brigade rose again, once again getting the better of their bitter rivals in another cup competition, the Kalinga Super Cup. This time the reward was sweeter. A place in the semi-final at the expense of Mohun Bagan Super Giant who were knocked out of the competition.
Also this time, there wasn’t to be a bitter end, as spurred on from the Kolkata derby win, East Bengal FC went on to win the Kalinga Super Cup, beating Jamshedpur FC and Odisha FC on the way.
It was their first national-level title in 12 years, a perfect tonic for the Red and Gold brigade to become a force in the ISL.
The fixtures of the second half of the season have provided East Bengal FC with an opportunity to further add to their momentum as they face Mohun Bagan Super Giant in their first match back.
After a long time in the league, the Kolkata derby will have no heavy favourites. East Bengal FC’s recent wins will give them plenty of hope, but Mohun Bagan SG would love to point at the table where a gap still exists between the two Kolkata giants.
Eight points and three places separate the two teams with Mariners having won six matches compared to East Bengal FC’s two.
However, it’s a much more level-playing field in the Kolkata derby this time around than it has been in recent times.
Antonio Habas’ men may have scored eight more goals than Cuadrat’s side, but the Red and Gold brigade have conceded six fewer goals and kept five clean sheets more.
This is East Bengal FC’s best points return in the ISL after ten matches while for the Mariners it’s the second-worst in their time in ISL at the very point.
Cuadrat’s men are unbeaten in their last five matches in the ISL and haven’t conceded in their last four outings in the league. Even though four out of those five games have been draws, the Red and Gold brigade have been a tough nut to crack.
In contrast, Mohun Bagan SG have lost their last three matches in the league.
So the derby on Saturday has a different feel to it as compared to the last few occasions where there has been a clear favourite and definite underdog.
Mohun Bagan Super Giant may still uphold their supremacy over their rivals in the ISL and show their class, but the Kolkata derby is by no means a foregone conclusion. The landscape of the tie has changed and the change might be here to stay