Despite being the most consistent I-League team of this decade, East Bengal FC have not won the national championship for the last 12 seasons. Their last win had come way back in the 2003-‘04 National Football League season – a tournament that was rechristened as I-League a few years later.
With the competition’s proposed merger with the Indian Super League waiting on the fringes, it is the last chance for the 97-year old outfit to win the silverware at least once in its current avatar. They have come agonisingly close on a number of occasions, finishing second best in 2010-‘11, 2011-‘12 and 2013-‘14.
The last couple of years, though, have seen their form dip as the title-race has largely been reduced to a Mohun Bagan-Bengaluru FC rivalry. The squad is now hell-bent on making amends and a near-perfect start in the league campaign has further boosted their prospects. After a drab 1-1 draw with Aizawl FC in the opening encounter, the Red and Golds have won the next six ties, now leading the points tally.
A chance for the Red and Golds to make amends
All those positive vibes, though, will hardly matter this weekend when they take on their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan in Siliguri with the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata undergoing renovation. This is a fixture which has little regard for form, gulf in quality and technical abilities as many famous footballers have faded away having failed to handle the stress. For the 97-year old club, whose fan-base in the initial years consisted of mostly immigrants coming from the region now known as Bangladesh, this rivalry has always presented a chance to earn respect in a place where had to fight tooth and nail to claim their rights.
If there is one aspect where the club’s fans have nothing to worry about, it is the presence of Trevor James Morgan in the dug-out. The former Hull City reserve team coach was also in charge of East Bengal during 2010-‘13 and had won eight trophies during his three-year stint. He has an enviable record in the derby as well, having lost only two of the twelve ties.
The shrewd tactician rarely tweaks the formation of his team and has adopted a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond formation this year, which has worked wonders till now. In May 2013, Morgan had announced that he was leaving the club minutes after winning a derby, a fixture which had also sealed the Calcutta Football League for the club. This was the best ever farewell a foreign football coach has ever got on Indian soil, with at least forty thousand supporters chanting his name and hoping against hope that the coach will stay on for another season. “That reception by the supporters will be forever with me and their support certainly had an influence on me returning to East Bengal this year,” Morgan told Scroll on Thursday.
East Bengal in prime form
Despite all his success in other tournaments, the I-League has eluded Morgan in all three outings. It can all change this year, as the Kolkata club have a squad strong enough to go the distance. Morgan’s old warhorses like Arnab Mondal, Mehtab Hossain and Lalrindika Ralte are still part of the squad, even though Mondal is unlike to play any part of Sunday having recently recovered from an injury. Mehtab and Ralte has been in sublime form this year. All three of East Bengal’s foreigners will be playing in the derby for the very first time but they have already made their mark in Indian football.
Trinidad and Tobago national team striker Willis Plaza and Haitian attacker Wedson Anselme have both scored five goals apiece while Ugandan defender Ivan Bukenya has also hit the back of the net thrice besides being a rock at the back. The form of the two full-backs Rahul Bheke and Narayan Das can be a cause of concern for the club faithful as Mohun Bagan launch most of their attacks through the two wings, with Sony Norde and Yusa Katsumi wreaking havoc. Chris Payne, the new Australian defender signed by the club, is expected to arrive in the city in next 48 hours, but will not be included in the 18-member match-day squad by the coach.
The attendance will definitely be skewed in favour of East Bengal as Siliguri is known as a bastion of the Red and Gold supporters. Unlike the usual arrangement where both clubs get equal number of tickets, the small stadium will see more fans of the home team throng the stands. The numbers also back Morgan’s side, as they have a far superior head to head record against their neighbours with almost a margin of 30 wins.
Even though the coaches usually try to undermine the importance of this fixture and try to approach it like any other match, this year the Kolkata derby can be decisive in the title race as well. “This year, I think the two derbies and our away match against Bengaluru FC will have the biggest role in deciding the champions,” Lalrindika Ralte, who is expected to wear the captain’s arm-band for East Bengal this weekend, told Scroll after the win against Chennai City FC.
His coach, though did not agree with him. “The season is not halfway through yet and there will be many twists and turns ahead. Our only concern is to get three points, no matter who the opponent is,” said Morgan.
Ralte and Co will have all to play for in the match, while the neutrals will pray for a good footballing contest, a rarity in the recent history of the derby.