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EB & Bagan on even keel

- Uga to be in 18-man squad; Karim seeks breathing space
(From left) Mehtab Hussain, Armando Colaco, Karim Bencharifa and Shilton Paul, at the East Bengal tent, on Friday. A Telegraph picture

Calcutta: It’s a throwback to those days of despair.

There was a time in between 2006 and 2008 when East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were no longer in the title race of the National League and the only thing to brag about was their head-to-head count. Dempo, Churchill Brothers and Salgaocar were taking rapid strides, but the Big Two of Calcutta were happily caught in a time warp, arguing over who had the last laugh in their meetings.

There were no qualms about the fact that by January, the fear of being relegated used to loom large. The Derbies never had any impact on the I-League over all.

Then one Trevor James Morgan took over the reins in East Bengal and suddenly the scenario changed. For three seasons, East Bengal were the team to beat even though it was bad luck that they did not win the I-League. Bagan, also, for a season — 2008-09 — played brilliant football and finished runners-up.

Morgan left, leaving behind fond memories, while Karim got a team, which hardly had the wherewithal to go the distance.

Once again, there is this sinking feeling which has engulfed the players and fans alike.

As the arch-rivals gear up for Saturday’s I-League Derby, both have hardly any chance of regaining the National League.

While East Bengal are in the eighth position with 19 points from 13 matches, Bagan are ninth with 19 from 17 ties. East Bengal can draw solace from the fact that they have played three matches less than table-toppers Bengaluru FC.

But that’s hardly any reason to cheer about. Realistically, the team, which, were expected to run over their rivals, at the start of the season, find themselves languishing at the bottom half of the I-League table.

And Bagan? Well, they built a team around their captain Okolie Odafa, who has spent most of the season on the sidelines nursing injuries. Another trophy-less season is waiting for them, and the officials’ usual business of passing the buck and looking for a scapegoat has already started.

Bagan have already found one scapegoat in Bencharifa and there is a clamour to give him the boot after this season. But a favourable result on Saturday — let’s not forget Bagan did beat East Bengal in the inconsequential CFL Derby — will give the Moroccan some breathing space.

East Bengal coach Armando Colaco also is desperate for a victory. After the Federation Cup debacle and IFA Shield humiliation, the focus was on I-League. But the rot could not be stemmed. A disappointing draw at home against Churchill Brothers followed by a loss to Dempo in Margao, Colaco is surely feeling the heat.

On November 24 last year, in his first match as East Bengal coach, Colaco was the hero as the red-and-gold brigade rode Lalrindika Ralte’s stunner to log full points. That match could have been anybody’s as Bagan failed to convert at least three open chances.

Both the teams this season were let down by the failure of their frontliners. Edeh Chidi and James Moga lacked consistency, while Christopher Chizoba and CS Sabeeth found Odafa’s boots too big to fill in. Bagan’s plight could be gauged from the fact that they have scored just 16 goals in 19 matches and let in as many.

East Bengal are a shade better, scoring 18 in 13 matches, while conceding 13. Bagan have an inherent problem when it comes to dealing with set-pieces. No wonder East Bengal spent more than 45 minutes practising set-pieces on Friday. Captain Mehtab Hussain, Lalrinka Ralte, Harmanjyot Singh Khabra took free-kicks and corners and Colaco will be hoping it pays off on Saturday.

There is a good news, though, for East Bengal. Uga Okpara returned from Nigeria on Thursday late evening and attended Friday’s practice session. The defender, who has recovered from hamstring injury, may not start, but will be in the 18-man squad. That means Raju Gaikwad and Arnab Mondal will be the two central defenders.

Syed Rahim Nabi probably has put things in the right perspective when his prediction for Saturday’s match was sought. “It’s fifty-fifty. But how does it matter? Only a miracle can bring back the I-League back in Calcutta.”