Kolkata: Mohun Bagan, who are set to join the Indian Super League bandwagon from the next season, prevailed 2-1 against arch-rivals East Bengal in an emotional I-League derby on Sunday.
Joseba Beitia (18th) and Baba Dawara (65th) struck on either side of the break as Mohun Bagan put up a solid display both in the attack and defence to grab three points, consolidating their position atop the table.
They now have 17 points from eight matches, six clear of second placed Punjab FC.A lacklustre East Bengal reduced the margin through Marcos Jimenez (72nd). They were unlucky when Juan Mera's 30-yard shot bounced off the crosspiece as they suffered third defeat in row to be on eight points from seven matches.
With Mohun Bagan announcing their merger with two-time ISL champions ATK, this was the penultimate derby in the I-League era.
And Mohun Bagan made it special, winning their first derby since January 21, 2018 -- a 2-0 win in I-League. Since then Mohun Bagan had failed to win from from four matches, including two in I-League.
Bagan named an unchanged eleven for the big game while the Red & Golds made one change, bringing in Mehtab in defence in place of Asheer Akhtar.
The deadlock could not be broken in the first quarter of an hour even as Bagan held a slight edge with their attacking forays.
In the 19th minute, Beitia struck with a professionally-placed header away from the keeper Mawia Ralte, but it was the work of left-winger Nongdamba Naorem that Beitia reaped the rewards of.
The youngster, who has been in great form this season, had a few minutes earlier weaved his way into the East Bengal box outfoxing Kamalpreet and his cross from close was eventually snuffed out by a sliding Kasim Aidara.
This time the Manipuri latched onto a neatly directed back-pass from outside the box by Papa Diawara and drove ahead. Kamalpreet tried to challenge but Naorem's sublime skills coupled with his pace meant he was crossing back in from the East Bengal goal line in no time. The cross found Beitia in the clear and he made no mistake.
Bagan dominated the half thereafter and would have gone two up but for Ralte bringing off a super save off a Papa snapshot, from a corner in the dying minutes.
Senegalese and ex La-Liga striker Papa Diawara, who was recruited in the ongoing January transfer window, could not have found a better game to score his first in the famous green and maroon colours, when he rose to direct another perfect header off a Beitia corner, past Ralte and into the back of the East Bengal net.
This finally did seem to spur East Bengal's attacking instincts and they got one back six minutes later thanks to another new recruit, the freshly loaned Edmund Lalrindika, who was brought in place of Pintu Mahata on in the 58th minute by coach Alejandro Menendez.
The 20-year old latched on to a ball in the centre of midfield and surged ahead. Spotting the run of Spaniard Marcos Espada he unleashed a perfect ball into his path inside the Bagan box. Espada held-off his marker and to his credit brought off a clinical finish, placing his right-footed grounder into the right corner of the Bagan net, beating the outstretched hands of a diving Sankar Roy in goal.
East Bengal pushed relentlessly for the equaliser as Bagan looked tired and almost scripted a memorable comeback when a powerful Juan Mera strike from just outside the Bagan box thundered the crosspiece with Sankar stranded in the middle of the goal.
Mohun Bagan saw off the danger until the end to walk away with three points.
There was a massive turnout with 63,756 fans attending the match.
Crowds poured in hours before the start, holding placards and chanting the team slogans, making it a festive atmosphere at the iconic venue which will host the final I-league derby on March 15.
(With PTI inputs)