For the second tournament in a row, Juan Ferrando’s ATK Mohun Bagan (ATKMB) started with a loss to an I-League team they dominated. ATKMB salvaged their AFC Cup campaign with convincing wins over champions Bangladesh and Maldives after the 2-4 loss to Gokulam Kerala FC. Whether East Bengal, Mumbai City FC and Indian Navy will pose a tougher challenge in the 131st Durand Cup will have to be seen.
For Rajasthan United, the 3-2 victory at Salt Lake Stadium would be one of the most memorable nights in the team’s short history. Founded in 2018, they rose through the ranks last season after winning the I-League Second Division. Staying up and making the championship round ensured a satisfying start to their I-League journey where they finished sixth in 2021-22. Gyamar Nikum’s goal in the fifth minute of second-half stoppage time showed they could hold their own against one of India’s most expensive rosters, one that has a Finland international and at Florentin Pogba, a defender was part of a team that under current Paris St Germain’s coach, Christophe Galtier, won the Coupe de France in 2012-13.
Like Nikum, Bektur Amangeldiev and Lalrensanga Fanai were accurate in front of goal just as their opponents were poached. Nikum’s strike came as ATKMB desperately searched for a goal. Kryghizstan midfielder Amangeldiev took advantage of ATKMB’s inability to clear their lines and Pogba was not attentive to the situation and Fanai struck in when the home side couldn’t manage a corner kick.
Never mind at Rajasthan United that ATKMB was able to reach double digits. It will be important that goalkeeper Niraj Kumar emerged player of the match. He made crucial saves in both halves and would leave his line in time, forcing the ATKMB players to try to lob one-on-one situations which they failed to do with regularity infallible.
Manvir Singh, used as a second-half substitute, could have scored a hat-trick. Same with Kiyan Nassiri. Ashish Rai and Subhasish Bose missed narrowly, as did Liston Colaco. Accustomed to playing forward to accommodate more expensive imports, Singh’s lack of sharpness in front of goal has been a concern for India for some time. Saturday, it hurt ATKMB.
Facing a low block, ATKMB were ousted into the rivals’ penalty area, but after a flurry of misfires, Nassiri stabbed in the 43rd when Ashique Kuruniyan found him with a prompt from the left. Amangeldiev made sure the lead was short-lived by scoring in the 46th. ATKMB kicked off the second half with Kuruniyan hitting a free kick from Hugo Boumous in the 46th minute. More looked in sight but ATKMB conceded as Pogba was substituted in the 58th and before Brendan Hamill could settle when Fanai fired home in the 61st.
Ferrando tried to play ATKMB in a markedly different way than Antonio Lopez Habas’ direct approach. ATKMB circulates the ball and tries to play from behind. Getting used to it will take time and twice goalkeeper Arsh Anwar has almost paid a heavy price trying to do so. Pogba and Hamill have shown they will need time to adjust to Ferrando’s three-man style, Lalrinliana Hnamte and Kuruniyan need to work on the accuracy of his deliveries and the efficiency of the forwards in front of goal. Next Wednesday, former ISL champions Mumbai City FC.