Calcutta: Mohun Bagan captain Okolie Odafa will finally return to action when the green and maroon brigade face Mohammedan Sporting in an I-League match at the Salt Lake Stadium, here, on Saturday. Odafa’s last match was against the same opponent more than a month ago during the IFA Shield.
Coach Karim Bencharifa, though, was diplomatic when asked whether the Nigerian would get a start on Saturday. “He will be in the 18-man squad and has seemed to be in good condition over the last five practice sessions. He may or may not start,” Karim said after the Friday’s practice session, at the club ground.
Odafa had aggravated his hamstring injury after coming in as a substitute against Mohammedan Sporting back on February 5.
If Odafa’s return will be a boost for Bagan, there is some bad news too. Aiborlang Khongjee picked up a groin injury during the international friendly against Bangladesh last Wednesday and has been ruled out for the match.
“That has been the story of the season. When I get one, I lose two,” Karim said with a wry smile.
Four youngsters — Pritam Kotal, Ram Malik, Souvik Ghosh and Pankaj Moula — have returned after participating in an office tournament, but Karim is worried that they would be too tired for Saturday’s match. “I have no other options but to start with them,” he said.
Mohammedan Sporting are only a point above the one relegation zone and trail Bagan by four points. They have played two games less though.
The two have met three times this season in three different competitions. It has ended all square in each of the occasions, which includes the goalless stalemate in the I-League back in November.
Karim is aware of that fact. “Well, we haven’t been able to beat them. Neither have they managed to beat us,” he remarked.
According to Karim, Mohammedan Sporting are one of the strongest teams in the I-League apart from East Bengal. “At least on paper,” he added.
“They have depth in their squad and play a very physical game.” It’s true. During the IFA Shield encounter, Bagan players found it difficult to deal with Mohammedan Sporting when it came to 50-50 challenges. The Mehrajuddin Wadoos and Manish Maithanis were a step ahead throughout that match.
Mehrajuddin will not be there on Saturday after getting a direct red card against Sporting Clube de Goa last week. The Sanjoy Sen-coached side ended their winless streak with a 3-1 victory over the visitors and the team should take a lot of positives from that game.
Sen played mind games on the eve of the match. “It’s not a big match. Given Mohun Bagan’s poor performance this season, it’s just another game for us.
“Yes, for us, a big match will be against Bengaluru FC… A big match will be against Pune FC, not against Mohun Bagan,” he said after the practice session at the Salt Lake Stadium. Obviously, his ploy is to upset Bagan’s rhythm.