| OKORO: On song
New Delhi: The football millionaires versus the wannabes is how the clash between East Bengal and Army XI in the final of the 115th Pepsi Durand Cup football tournament can be viewed.
On the basis of history and tradition, 14-time champions East Bengal should canter to victory. Opponents Army XI, consisting entirely of professional soldiers, is playing not only in their first Durand Cup but also their first major final.
In the past Army XI’s best performance was a semi-final appearance in the 1991 Durand tournament. On that occasion they succumbed to the pressure and were routed 0-4 by Border Security Force.
In contrast, it is East Bengal’s 24th entry into the final. Besides Mohun Bagan, they are the only other Indian club to have won India’s oldest tournament three years in-a-row, 1989- 91.
Subhas Bhowmick has bitter memories of the 1999 Durand final, during his first stint as the East Bengal coach. The result of that final (losing in tie-breaker to Salgaocar) still haunts him and has changed his approach to coaching.
“In 1999 we played beautiful football, attacking with many passes but did not get results. Now I want results and will rely on quick counterattacks and a tight defence,” said the coach, his role model these days being Brazil’s Louis Felipe Scolari.
Bhowmick’s desire as coach is to win a major trophy. He hopes success in the Durand final will be a launching pad for further successes this season. But on current form, Army XI are no pushovers, because of their fitness, cohesion and hard tackling.
East Bengal have limited options. As only two foreign players are allowed in the squad for a domestic tournament, Bhowmick is toying with the idea of fielding both Gilmar Goncalves and Mike Okoro (top-scorer in the tournament so far). This would mean dropping defensive lynchpin Douglas D’Silva.
Bhowmick feels he can take the risk as Army XI’s attack is not lethal and that Arun Malhotra and Subhashish Roy Chowdhury can cope with strikers Preetam Bahadur and Raghu Kumar.
Such a bold option seems unlikely as without Douglas, he has only one defender among his reserves, the inexperienced Amjad Ali. So, Douglas and Okoro should be the two foreigners in the playing XI.
Another area of concern for East Bengal is a support striker for Okoro. Kaustav Ghosh, Trijit Das and K. Kulothungan have all been tried but with limited success. Kulothungan, however, is likely to play.
The match could hinge on how East Bengal youngsters S. Malsawmtluanga, Sashthi Duley and Chandan Das cope with the rugged and hard tackling Army XI defence and midfield. With both teams relying on tight defence and counterattacks, it could become a battle of attrition.
Adip Mazumdar, manager of Army XI, said: “We are under no pressure and will play freely. Pressure is on East Bengal to win.” However, the crucial question is how Army XI will cope with the pressure of playing in their first major final.
If they can control the butterflies in the stomach and play their usual brand of aggressive, cohesive and hard-tackling football, they could push East Bengal to the limit. However, if they succumb to the pressures of the final it could prove one-sided.
The kick-off is at 2.30pm and the match will be telecast live on Doordarshan Sports.
East Bengal: Satish Kumar; Surya Bikash Chakraborty, Arun Malhotra, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury, Douglas D’Silva; Y. Raju Singh, Chandan Das, S. Malswamtluanga, Sashthi Duley; K. Kulothungan, Mike Okoro.
Army XI: Abungobi Singh; Anish Sharma/Ajay Kumar, S. Ignatius, L. Angam, S. Ramesh; Irudayaraj, Saroj Gurung, Johnny Gangmei, Pritam Debnath; Raghu Kumar, Pritam Bahadur.