| East Bengal’s Uga Okpara and Edeh Chidi, during a practice session at the Salt Lake Stadium, on Tuesday |
Calcutta: After months of playing the likes of Mohun Bagan, Churchill Brothers and Dempo in the I-League, East Bengal begin their AFC Cup campaign on Wednesday against Selangor FA, a team they have no idea about.
And Morgan’s eagerness to know anything and everything on Selangor could be gauged from the fact that one “well-wisher” was on the phone with Morgan, giving him “inside information” from the rival camp. This was when the Malaysian side were having their practice session at the Salt Lake Stadium, on Tuesday afternoon.
It’s not that East Bengal are a bunch of nervous newcomers to the Asian scene. They are the only team from India who have been playing the tournament consistently — they have played thrice in as many years — even though they haven’t gone beyond the group stage.
The last time East Bengal went beyond the group stage was in 2004, under Subhas Bhowmick.
This time around, they have a very good chance of enjoying an extended stay in the tournament. They are in Group H of the AFC Cup with Tampines Rovers of Singapore, Selangor, and Sai Gon Xuah Thanh of Vietnam.
“We have a good chance. We are upbeat. But the first match will be very important. And then we have to be fully fit,” captain Sanju Pradhan said, during the media conference, on Tuesday.
Sanju was spot-on when he talked about fitness. Morgan’s main worry is how to keep the players’ free from injuries as East Bengal will be playing a lot of matches in the coming weeks. They are the leading the I-League standings, which means that they have a very good chance of winning the tournament. And then there is the CFL, and also the IFA Shield.
Fixture congestion thanks to the AFC Cup, and lack of depth in the squad has denied Morgan a chance to win the I-League for East Bengal in the past. So this year how he treats a tournament like the AFC Cup remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, Morgan said that East Bengal would be taking this tournament seriously, as the country’s prestige on the Asian platform will be at stake. “We will be representing India. So why should we take this tournament lightly?” he said.
But deep down he knew he was just saying for the sake of it. The AFC Cup for East Bengal is a headache as neither it is financially viable for the club, nor the team have the quality to get results.
On the local scene though, Morgan’s men are on a roll. But then, the quality of opposition — Aryan and Mohammedan Sporting — were below par.
Expectedly, Selangor coach Irfan Bakti have taken note of the fact that East Bengal have scored 13 goals in those two matches.
On Wednesday, East Bengal fans will be watching how one Ramez Dayoub performs. The Lebanese practised with East Bengal for three months in 2009, but had to leave as the transfer saga got murkier. He is now with Selangor and will be up against Edeh Chidi, which calls for an interesting duel.
“They have a very good frontline. So we will have to be cautious,” Dayoub said after the practice session.
Morgan, though, refused to divulge whether he would be starting with four foreigners. Harmanjyot Singh Khabra is a doubtful starter and whether Mehtab Hossain features in the first XI remains to be seen.
Mehtab, who will be leaving for Yangon on Thursday to join the national team, is nursing a niggle. If Mehtab doesn’t play, then Cavin Lobo will be there at the centre of the park with Penn Orji.
Apart from Dayoub, the Malaysian team have three quality foreigners in defender Peter Chrappan, midfielder Michal Kubala and Francis Forkey Doe. Francis, who looked vibrant during the practice session, will be quite a handful for the East Bengal defence.