The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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EB underdogs, but only just
Alvito can form a good combination with Sasthi
Sasthi’s passing has been sensible

The Indian flag was flying high in Jakarta in the summer of ’62. It was the last time that India won the Asian Games football gold. Forty-one years on, East Bengal are at the same city carrying the tricolour and trying to prove that Indian football can still command respect. The ASEAN Club Championship provided them the opportunity and they are a step away from making most of it.

It will be difficult. Not just because Subhas Bhowmick’s team will miss two regular players in the areas the coach pays a lot of attention to. Also due to the fact that the team they face is well versed in handling the pressure of international games. BEC Tero Sasana have the experience of holding fort on the continental stage, their entry to the AFC Champions League final bearing testimony.

Not that East Bengal are far behind in talent, technique and tactics. They proved that in their previous meeting against the Thailand champions, against whom they lost after committing an elementary error despite matching their rivals for most of the game. Tero Sasana’s advantage is that they are more familiar with the trick of delivering the knockout punch in an even contest. This factor makes them 55-45 favourites.

Bhowmick is unfortunate to be missing deep defender Mahesh Gawli and defensive half Debjit Ghosh in the final. As coach, his primary emphasis is on defensive organisation and these two were important cogs in his wheel. I don’t think he would have been too poorly off in the absence of one of these two, but under these unforeseen circumstances, the coach has to plan afresh.

Suley Musah looks the obvious choice at the heart of defence in place of Gawli, but Bhowmick must be thinking hard on a replacement for the big Ghanaian just ahead of the actual line of defence.

Musah, Douglas and Debjit had formed a second layer of protection in front of three central defenders in the previous match against Tero Sasana. These three are perfect spoilers, cutting off raids before they reach the danger zone.

This has been the key area in Bhowmick’s scheme of things and it will be interesting to see how he weighs his options in the final. I would like to see him being more judicious in using Alvito D’Cunha. We shall come back to this later in this discussion.

The Thailand team has no exceptional talent. They have a few individuals who are slightly ahead of the rest in quality, but their real plus point is that they play to their strength. They are fit, agile, fast and try to make maximum use of the width of the turf. They stretch the game, chase the ball and get enough men around the ball at almost every point on the pitch. They also have some well-rehearsed set-piece moves.

To match such teams it’s essential to have a double or triple defensive cover. But to win with such a plan, one needs a player who can hold the ball ahead of the area of caution and release it with consistent accuracy. East Bengal lack such a player. That’s why Bhaichung Bhutia is not receiving enough balls in advantageous positions. Of the options available, D’Cunha can be Bhowmick’s man of the hour.

The Goan has a good inside dodge, and is more consistent and accurate in delivery. D’Cunha had a dangerous outward body-feint following the initial inward thrust, but that’s hardly been seen in recent months. Replacing him with Bijen Singh in the semi-final may have been a tactical move, but I will be surprised if Bhowmick doesn’t use him for a longer period in the final. D’Cunha can form a surprise combination with Sasthi Duley too.

Duley has some nice, little turns and appears sensible while passing. East Bengal’s operation down the right have drawn applause and Surkumar Singh’s powerful runs on that flank have been widely talked about.

But his delivery and release needs to improve and the team can’t afford to see about 80 per cent of his crosses sailing into no-man’s land. Duley and D’Cunha are more accurate and can form a handy combination, especially in a counterattack-based strategy.

As far as I know Bhowmick the coach, it’s unlikely that he will take risks in the first 45 minutes. He knows the importance of not conceding a goal first in a crunch match and will instruct some of his boys to stay behind instead of darting down the flanks. He will try to preserve his players to make full use of their power and speed after half-time.

This team has the hunger to succeed. True, they start the final as underdogs, but the desire that brought them this far, may just provide the additional spring to their heels. They need that to script a new chapter in the history of Indian football.

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