The new kids in class walked in with a lofty reputation of past performances at other schools, and for half of their first session, they looked at ease. They ran out of answers as the questions got trickier, but they will believe the syllabus might get a touch easier as the semester extends.
SC East Bengal did get schooled in the end by ATK Mohun Bagan, but the 2-0 scoreline for Antonio Habas doesn't indicate all the boxes that Robbie Fowler's team ticked on the night. The raw numbers had East Bengal dominating possession, total passes and passing accuracy comfortably, but their 15 shots included just two on target, while ATKMB put away three on target from 12. As Kerala Blasters FC had discovered on the opening night of this Indian Super League (ISL) season, you can have all the advantage you want, but you run the risk of being punished severely if you don't put away your chances against Habas' discipline and grit.
The foreigners make a good first impression
They say you need a good spine to win a league, and in Indian football that invariably translates into having quality foreign players along the line from defence to attack. SCEB look sorted in at least two of those departments. Daniel Fox and Scott Neville were reasonably solid at the back, with captain Fox often asking for the ball and taking charge of distribution out from the back.
Matti Steinmann started as a defensive screen, and invariably ignited his team's best moments moving forward. He seems to have a keen sense of where his teammates are likely to be found in, and won the ball often enough to bring the attacking players into play.
Jacques Maghoma and Anthony Pilkington started quietly, but began exerting greater influence in the match as it wore on, the latter even extracting a top save at full stretch from Arindam Bhattacharya late in the second half. However, the two players had to drop wide and support attack far too often, especially with Balwant Singh seemingly off the boil on the big day. If East Bengal have to score goals, they would want Maghoma and Pilkington involved in the centre of the opposition box as often as possible.
The indifferent show from the experienced Indians
Debjit Majumder began big-time football almost a decade ago at East Bengal, but had to concede first team opportunities to an upcoming Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. He actually starred in Mohun Bagan's 2014-15 I-League win, picking up the first of two Best Goalkeeper awards that season. On Friday, he returned to man the East Bengal goal and had a good first half, making a sharp save off the only shot that Javi Hernandez put away for ATKMB in the first 45.
Majumder had a little blame to take for the opener from Roy Krishna, though, reacting slowly to a flat but straight shot from the Fijian's anvil of a left foot, that came through the legs of a defender. Any contact with his left hand would perhaps have conceded a corner at best, and conceding inside the first five minutes of the second half just played into ATKMB's strategy of holding on and hitting their opposition on the counter.
Others like Balwant, Surchandra Singh, Loken Meitei, Narayan Das all had their moments, but not on a frequent enough basis. This is a team where the Indian players have over 600 ISL caps between themselves, and once they get some sense of coordination playing together, they need to make this experience count and step up in the matches to come.
Who will get the goals?
In the post-match interaction with the broadcasters, Fowler joked about not needing to believe rumours about Wigan Athletic striker Joe Garner looking set to join East Bengal in January. But it is in attack that East Bengal look thinnest, and that's where the derby seemed decided. They made several forays down both flanks, pulling off neat passages of play where their midfielders retained possession and pushed the opposition deep into their own defensive third, but the deliveries rarely found any red-and-gold jersey willing to put their head or feet into threatening positions.
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"I think you saw we can be a team that can trouble a few other teams. We were playing the champions and we weren't overawed, and gave as good as we got," Fowler said after the game. "We were massively behind the ball. We have trained for just two-and-a-half weeks. It's a poor start as a result, but we know our performance can get better."
They play their next three games inside the next fortnight, which could probably be a good thing given their lack of match play together as a unit. The experienced Indian players need to start pulling their weight to a greater extent, especially with the star-studded Mumbai City FC as their next opponents on December 1.
It's time for the new kids to get back home, hit the books, get some good rest, and come back for their next examination.