Calcutta: Seeking to become the first Indian football club to qualify for the AFC Cup final, unbeaten East Bengal are all set for their toughest assignment so far when they take on defending champions Kuwait SC in the first-leg semi-final, in Kuwait City, on Tuesday evening.
Marcos Falopa’s side are the only unbeaten team among the four semi-finalists, but one isn’t sure how much that will count because the Kuwaitis are in a different league altogether. Not only have Kuwait SC won the AFC Cup twice, they also have the distinction of playing in Asia’s top tier competition — AFC Champions League.
East Bengal are without their Japanese playmaker Ryuji Sueoka, who was injured during the quarter-final away match against Indonesian side Semen Padang. But good news is that all the other players are fit.
Captain Mehtab Hossain and defenders Arnab Mondal and Gurwinder Singh landed in Kuwait City on Monday morning, after a day’s delay due to late forwarding of visas by Kuwait SC officials. The ‘missing’ trio and the officials checked in at the team hotel at around 5am.
With the trio missing out on Sunday’s practice, coach Falopa could not get the combination right. “We didn’t have an ideal build-up to this match… It’s a bad situation for us. But we know how to thrive in adversity. The first 20 minutes will be crucial.
“We didn’t get enough preparation time as we had to travel to Kuwait just days after the match in Indonesia… But we are mentally prepared and will give a good fight to the Kuwaiti team, who are stronger than us… We are the underdogs and we will play simple football with good defence,” Falopa said on match eve.
Senior player Alvito D’Cunha said that the players who joined the team in Kuwait City on Monday are very tired. “They are very tired… It will take some time before they recover,” Alvito told The Telegraph from Kuwait City.
However, like Falopa, Alvito too believes that the team is in high spirits. “We are upbeat… Hopefully, we will put up a good show and then go for the kill in the return leg,” the senior pro said.
Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is expected to start despite the horrendous mistake that let Semen Padang take the lead in Indonesia.
India international Arnab Mondal will start alongside Uga Okpara in central defence while Saumik Dey should man the left back position. Naoba Singh will be the right back. The Brazilian coach is mulling using either Harmanjyot Singh Khabra or Cavin Lobo as the defensive screen. Mehtab Hossain will marshal the midfield along with Joaquim Abranches and Lalrindika Ralte. Chidi Edeh and James Moga expected to start upfront.
A draw, or at least an away goal if they lose, could be what Falopa is looking from his side. “Yeah, we will go for a draw… But it’s easier said than done. They are a very good side,” he said.
Falopa was also worried that if a West Asian referee is in charge of the match, key decisions may go against the Indian side. But to his relief, he was later informed that the chief referee will be from China.
Moga, who came in as a substitute against Padang and headed in the goal which took East Bengal to semis, said: “We will show them we are no pushovers… A decent result will give us a chance in the return leg. I agree they are the favourites… But then, in football everything is possible,” Moga had said.
Captain Mehtab, too, sounded confident. “We will try our best and will dish out our best performance to give a good fight to them.”
Kuwait SC, the most successful Kuwaiti side, will be without key defender Yaqoub Al Taheris, who picked up a red card in the quarter final against Maldives’ New Radiant.
Much will depend on medio Al Shereedah and their two lethal strikers — Brazilian Rogerio and Tunisian Isaam Jemma.
But Falopa is aware of the threat. He has spoken to his players about Rogerio and Isaam and so the 64-year-old could be having something up his sleeves.