In AFC Cup 2022, the inability to convert chances and keep clean sheets were the early diagnosis that emerged from ATK Mohun Bagan’s Durand Cup exit. And in their AFC Cup inter zonal semi-final against Kuala Lumpur City.
The Malaysian side exploited those failings clinically, picking on Bagan’s vulnerable underbelly to win 3-1 and knock their more fancied opponents out of the competition for the second time from the zonal last four stage in successive seasons.
Bagan coach Juan Ferrando appeared worldly wise about his team’s failings, but was unable to plug those weakness. His team neither could score at will nor keep KL City at bay and at the end had only a superior ball possession count to show for their efforts.
In his pre-match chat, Ferrando had insisted on having a ‘score more than the opponent’ approach.
But his team selection bordered on caution, opting for two new overseas centrebacks in Brandon Hamill and Florentin Pogba, in place of another new signing Aussie striker Dimitri Petratos. Influential playmaker Hugo Boumous was also left out as creative responsibilities were bestowed on Joni Kauko.
The Finnish star circulated the ball at good pace, shifted back and forth in the penalty zone and snatched the ball back when Bagan lost possession.
Liston Colaco twisted, turned, ran at defenders with good pace, attempted long rangers and overhead kicks. But couldn’t create that genuine opening.
Hence, despite unrestrained ball possession, multiple corners and free-kicks and virtually playing in the KL City half, they couldn’t unlock their disciplined opponents.
In AFC Cup 2022 inter-zonal semi-final, Bagan began the second half in the same vein they did the first, winning a couple of corners within five minutes of the resumption. Their floated deliveries, though, didn’t find the heads of any green and maroon players.
They picked up pace of their build-up play, which was a tad too slow in the first session.
Yet it was KL City who broke the deadlock, very much against the run of play. Playmaker Paulo Josue, who was identified as one of KL City’s dangermen, was largely silent. But just at the stroke of the hour mark, he sprang to life, unleashing a booming left footer on a stray ball from outside the box that swerved away from the gloves of Vishal Kaith, who till then had to hardly collect the ball.
The goal only added pressure on Bagan to deliver up front and played into the hands of KL City, who remained content to play on the counter and let Bagan move the ball around in the midfield zone. Within five minutes of scoring, KL City coach Bojan Hodak made three substitutions that made amply clear his intention to protect the lead.
It is when KL City broke quickly on the break, highlighting Bagan’s vulnerability at the back that it became clear why Ferrando started with two defenders instead of their new striker, who has only trained with the team for a week.
But the match being a knock out game, they needed goals, even at the cost of being exposed at the back. In that mission, Ferrando brought on Asish Rai and Fardin Ali Mollah in place of defenders Pritam Kotal and Brendan Hamill respectively. Ferrando would have a lot of explaining to do why he resisted temptations of bringing on Petratos and Boumous in his quest for goals.
As Bagan knocked on the door of KL City and were denied time and again, it looked all lost for the home side till Mollah banged in from close range after a stray ball landed on his path in the first minute of added time.
With six minutes awarded by the referee as injury time, ATK Mohun Bagan were expected to throw the kitchen sink in search of the winner.
Instead, they fell apart at the back, unable to mark Fakrul Aiman bin Sidid moments after equalising as he nodded in a free-kick as from within a host of players. Romel Morales then gleefully guided the ball home in the 95th minute after Subasish Roy Chowdhury committed hara-kiri while trying to pass his way out of trouble.
According to some reports, fans presented in the stadium were forcibly stopped by the present police from chanting “Mohun Bagan” and “Mohun Bagan” tifos, and banners were taken off or not allowed to be displayed by the present law enforcement or stadium police.
In the inter zone final KL City would travel to Uzbekistan to face Sogdiana Jizzakh on October 5.
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