| Ernest Jeremiah (left) and M. Suresh during East Bengal’s practice at the club ground on Sunday. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Calcutta: Simple arithmetic suggests East Bengal still have an outside chance of retaining the crown. On Monday afternoon, though, the priority of the defending champions will to settle scores with title-contenders Dempo SC in their penultimate-round National Football League (NFL) clash for the ONGC Cup.
The visitors from Goa ' currently best-placed in the three-way race for the title ' rode a brilliant Ranty Martins hattrick to overcome Subhas Bhowmick’s men 3-2 in Margao in February.
Eightyone days down the line, Dempo have moved along with purpose while East Bengal faltered in crucial away games (one draw in Goa and a loss in Mumbai).
Sporting Clube de Goa are leading the table (45 points) with the game against Mahindra United left. Dempo, on the other hand, are on 44 and will host Tollygunge Agragami after Monday’s engagement.
East Bengal (40 points from 20 matches) must win both matches (Vasco will be their final-round opponents) to keep their slim hopes alive. They will also have to depend on Mahindra beating Sporting and Tollygunge at least sharing points with Dempo.
Quite rightly, Bhowmick is not conceding the title without a fight. “Who says the league is over,” he questioned.
Bhowmick didn’t exactly state on the eve of the Dempo match that his team was determined to exact revenge, but he more than indicated that pride ' which took some battering in Goa ' was at stake at the Salt Lake Stadium on Monday.
“We are all professionals and the boys have to deliver their best tomorrow,” Bhowmick said on Sunday.
His task, however, is huge. He spoke eloquently of Bijen Singh’s goal against Muktijoddha (in the AFC Cup tie in Dhaka on Wednesday), but the absence of major strike forces like Bhaichung Bhutia and Alvito D’Cunha is clearly forcing him to replan strategy.
“Dempo’s desire to win the match is stronger than ours,” Bhowmick insisted, indicating that counter-attacking football will be the order of the day.
Dempo coach Armando Colaco is not buying his counterpart’s theory, though.
“We’ve no pressure to win tomorrow. If the title comes our way, it will be fine' It’ll be a tribute to (Cristiano) Junior,” Colaco pointed out.
“I’ve seen the players turning around from the shock (of the Brazilian’s on-field death during the Federation Cup final) and it’s amazing to note that they have come so far. I think that in itself is a great achievement,” he maintained.
Truly so. But it may well be a deliberate attempt to keep the pressure off and the focus on. In the last edition too, Dempo were very much in the running for the title till East Bengal surged ahead. Colaco, understandably, is guarding against a repetition of that mistake.