The homecoming that was two years in the making had a degree of dissonance but that was in the stands. On the pitch, ATK Mohun Bagan celebrated their first match at the Salt Lake stadium with a 5-0 win against Sri Lankan champions Blue Star to make the second round of the 2022 AFC Cup qualifiers here on Tuesday. They will play Abahani Dhaka here for a berth in the main round on April 19.
Playing five defenders and a bank of four midfielders, Blue Star’s bid to stop ATK Mohun Bagan lasted 24 minutes. That is when Joni Kauko turned and found space in a thicket of legs to break the deadlock after a lob from Manvir Singh fell for the Finn when Rinas failed to clear his lines. Before the game, Kauko had spoken of trying to make amends for the disappointment of failing to make the final of the Indian Super League and being swept off the park by FC Nasaf when ATK Mohun Bagan last played in this competition. That the home team, watched by 24,773, was 3-0 ahead by the 39th was proof of Kauko and the team walking the talk.
On either side of Kauko’s goals, Singh scored in the 29th minute; his solo effort of outmuscling T Kajakopan before controlling a high ball, accelerating and shooting at SSK Lakpriya’s near post encapsulating the difference between the teams in strength and skill. Another example was how Blue Star forward Prince Boadu’s handling the ball under no pressure that yielded the penalty Kauko coolly converted, his placement so acute that even though Lakpriya guessed right, he had no chance. For a third, look no further than how in the 32nd minute Hugo Boumous slipped, shielded the ball and got up with it with a rival player on his shoulder.
Kiyan Nassiri’s early runs, a second-minute corner-kick, David Williams unable to get a connection were all early indications of how the night would pan out. Only for Boadu to nearly score after a 12th minute lob over the high defensive line found him in space. Rookie goalkeeper Arsh Anwar – ATK Mohun Bagan left Amrinder Singh out of the squad and preferred to keep veteran Subrata Paul on the bench – ensured there would be no damage by getting big on Blue Star’s lone forward.
Even as the roar ‘Mohun Bagan’ reverberated around the cauldron, there was a visible drop in intensity from the home team in the second half and coach Juan Ferrando took out Kauko, Subhasish Bose, Nassiri and Prabir Das and brought on central defender Sumit Rathi as left back. Young players Ravi Rana, Bidyananda Singh and Gursimrat Gill, whose brother Prabhsukhan won the golden glove in the Indian Super League, too got game time as Ferrando preferred to conserve energy for next week.
For such dominance – by the 30th minute ATK Mohun Bagan had 74% possession – striker Williams not being on the scoresheet felt like an aberration. The home team righted that in the 76th minute when Boumous and Singh combined to set up the Australian, who scored with a tap-in. ATK Mohun Bagan were not done yet. Singh scored in the 89th minute with a deft placement after Boumous found him with a pass down the middle. Salt Lake stadium emptied soon after with one final roar.
Not after a final dig at that merger of ATK and Mohun Bagan. As players went towards the stands after the game, the tifo that said ‘Ultras never quit’ with a man in maroon and green sat on a wheelchair was unfurled for the second time; as was the banner that called for a return to Mohun Bagan. The one that said ‘we are supporters, not customers’ glistened from the beginning to the end.
SCORELINE: ATK Mohun Bagan 5 (Kauko 24, 39 (p); Manvir (29; 89); Williams (76) beat Blue Star 0