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Bagan high on confidence
- Churchill Brothers aim to maintain momentum

Kochi: Mohun Bagan’s Federation Cup campaign this year is quite similar to East Bengal’s in 2009-10. That season also East Bengal, under Phillippe de Ridder, had nothing to crow about other than the Federation Cup.

That was a disastrous season for East Bengal. They let in five goals against Mohun Bagan, consistently lost matches, but somehow they came back from Guwahati with the Federation Cup.

And this year, Bagan also did not have a good start to the season. They stuttered in the I-League and saw the CFL title going to their arch-rivals.

It’s the Federation Cup they are looking forward to for some solace. And going by their form they should bring home the Cup they have won 13 times.

But before they lay their hands on the Federation Cup, Bagan will have to deal with two Goan clubs.

On Thursday afternoon, at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, here, Bagan will be playing Churchill Brothers, who did not lose even a point in the group stage. For the record, Churchill Brothers have never won the Federation Cup and by coach Mariano Dias’ own admission that is something which is driving them on.

If Bagan manage to go past Churchill, then they will be playing the winners of the second semi-final, which is an all-Goan affair involving Dempo SC and Sporting Clube de Goa.

Bagan seemed to be quite confident of making it to the final. And coach Karim Bencharifa’s decision to do away with penalty practice on match-eve proves that point. “He told us he has complete faith in his boys and that we would be able to finish it off in regulation time,” a senior player said on Thursday.

Bagan in a way is carrying the Bengal burden. Of the five teams, if one includes minnows Bhowanipore, who came to Kerala, all have returned home.

Now the onus is on Karim Bencharifa’s men to keep the Bengal flag flying. Will they be able to rise to the occasion? Or falter as they have been for the last four seasons?

Karim, however, says the fact that Bagan are the only team from Calcutta does not add to the pressure. “Tell me which match Bagan play under no pressure? Even we are expected to win a friendly match. So if somebody tells me that we are under pressure then I’m sorry… I am not buying that,” the Moroccan told The Telegraph on Wednesday evening.

Karim should be wary of Anthony Wolfe, the striker from Trinidad and Tobago. This Churchill forward has been in rousing form in the ongoing tournament and can single-handedly spoil Bagan’s day.

Then there is one Abdelhamid Shabana who is a very good attacking midfielder and deadly from dead-ball situations. The Egyptian’s duel with Denson Devadas will be one of the interesting points of the match.

Bagan will once again be banking on their captain Okolie Odafe. The Nigerian has never won the Federation Cup and is determined to add this on his overflowing cabinet.

However, when you are playing a semi-final, you cannot rely only on one player to contribute. Other players also need to get their act right and Christopher Chizoba, Katsumi Yusa, Pritam Kotal, Zakeer Mundampara, Denson Devadas, Aniyeche Ichezona, Aiborlang Khongjee are all playing their roles to the T. It’s a good sign for the team and much of the credit should go to Karim.

Zakeer Mundampara has been a revelation in this tournament and his runs on the right will prove quite a handful for Churchill.

Wolfe agrees Bagan are playing much better as a team. “They played a great match against Lajong and my reading is this team is not just about Odafe. Yeah he is a great player and game-changer, but others can punish us if are off the focus even for a minute,” Wolfe said.

Lack of experience in the Bagan ranks is something to worry about. Souvik Ghosh, Kotal, Ram Malik, Zakeer do not have that much experience. Karim is not giving it a thought though. “These boys have the talent so experience factor does not come into the scenario.”

Whether the exuberance of Bagan will keep then in this port city till January 25 remains to be seen.