It has been five years since Mohun Bagan last won the I-League. Which is an embarrassment for a club of its stature, especially when you consider how weak the I-League has become over the last few years. But the team has never been in better shape as it is now to end this barren run. After a slow start, Bagan have looked the part this season: A team that plays attractive and purposeful football, and are earning the results they deserve.
On Friday, defending champions Chennai City FC gave them a scare and a good fight, but Bagan prevailed. Again. Like they have made a habit of doing this season. The Mariners dug deep to earn a 3-2 victory in Coimbatore, even though the team was sitting on a 3-0 lead with 25 minutes left.
At the halfway stage of their season, Bagan sit six points clear at the top of the league standings (though a few teams have played lesser games). They are firm favourites to lift the trophy for the final time, before the club moves to the Indian Super League in a new avatar.
Chennai head coach Akbar Nawas described his opponents as "a complete team" prior to the game. Creative and clinical in attack, solid in midfield and robust in defence. Add to this, the bench players have made a difference when called upon. Under their head coach Kibu Vicuna, Bagan have shown dimensions to their game that they were lacking in the past few seasons.
What has helped is the departure of Haitian winger Sony Norde, who had become far too much of a focal point in Bagan's narrative " both on and off the pitch " over the last five years. Norde played on the left wing and although he was the best foreigner in the division, he did not allow Bagan to have the right balance in the line-up.
Today, the team does have the right balance with foreigners who are deployed in key positions. It has a central midfield spine with the league's best playmaker, Joseba Beitia, and the league's best defensive midfielder, Fran Gonzalez, with the injured Julen Colinas to spare. It has a central defensive pairing of Fran Morante and Daneil Cyrus, a duo that may not be spectacularly solid but does its job as well, or better, than the rest.
Since January, Bagan also have Papa Diawara, a Senegalese striker who Vicuna says has the "best CV" in the league. As things stand, the club has the league's best attack (most goals scored per game) and the best defence (least goals conceded per game).
But everything wasn't this rosy at the start of the season.
There were several chinks in Bagan's armour and, by luck or by design, were plugged when needed. It has helped that Vicuna has been with the club since May 2019, several months before the I-League season, and had overseen the team in the Calcutta Football League (CFL). He knows his squad well.
Debjit Majumder's horrendous performance in the 2-4 home defeat to Churchill Brothers meant Bagan needed a better goalkeeper. Up stepped Sankar Roy, who has been a revelation. Roy is not a commanding presence and often struggles with high balls, but makes up for it with his shot-saving heroics. A spectacular save in stoppage time against title contenders Punjab FC earned Bagan a crucial point.
Salvador Chamorro, the first-choice striker, did not impress the coach and his replacement Diawara took time to settle. Bagan needed goals. Up stepped Gonzalez, the league's highest-scoring midfielder with five goals. Now, Diawara is firing too. He has scored four in his last three, including the decisive goal in the derby against East Bengal. A foreign striker did not start for Bagan until the fifth game of the season, and did not score until the eighth. But the team coped with it well.
Morante and Cyrus had played every minute in defence until the latter picked up a minor injury in the second half against NEROCA FC. He was forced to miss the Chennai game in which the Mariners' makeshift defence conceded many chances and looked fragile. But they still won 3-2, on the back of a clinical attacking display.
Contribution by Indians have made a big difference too. Sheikh Sahil, 19, has been solid in central midfield since joining the club in mid-2019. Nongdamba Naorem, 20, has made up for Norde's absence with performances full of guile and end product. Subha Ghosh, 19, the super sub, has scored thrice in less than 100 minutes on the pitch, including a late equaliser against Punjab FC when all hope was lost.
Add to this, the experience of forward VP Suhair, who is wasteful when it comes to goal-scoring chances but impressive in the build-up, full backs Ashutosh Mehta and Dhanachandra Singh, both of whom bring league-winning experience to the team, and the exciting on-loan winger Romario Jesuraj, who returned from injury in the last game.
What makes Vicuna's Bagan "complete" is its versatility. Classy in possession but ugly when required. In tough conditions and against physical opponents, it has dug deep. On a poor pitch in Ludhiana which did not suit their style of passing football, Bagan still earned a point, while in Srinagar, the team matched Real Kashmir's physicality and aerial prowess and came up trumps.
This is a team that can keep possession and carve you open beautifully, or hit you on the counter attack when you think you have the upper hand or even punish you decisively through a set piece. It is what makes Bagan favourites this season.
When Punjab FC visit Kolkata next Sunday, the result will go a long way in answering whether Bagan's title charge can be stopped at all.