| East Bengal players warm up at the slushy club ground on the eve of their Super Division clash with Mohammedan Sporting Wednesday. (Picture below) Mohammed Habeeb explains strategy to some of his wards at the Mohammedan Sporting ground. Pictures by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta: A day after 9/11… East Bengal’s final test this season, maybe. A test as hot, nevertheless, for Mohammedan Sporting, in the home stretch of the Calcutta Football League’s Super Division title-hunt. Three points separate the two, and while East Bengal did show tremendous attacking flair in dismissing Mohammedan Sporting 2-0 in their first encounter, this time around it just might all be somewhat different.
That is because — and Mohammedan Sporting coach Mohammed Habeeb might have a point in this — the black-white jerseys will see the return of Abdulateef Seriki and Hussein Mustafi. On the other hand East Bengal will miss not only Douglas De Souza (red card), but also M. Suresh (double booking). That will mean a weaker defence for the leaders and Dipankar Roy will not be around yet because of hepatitis, taking a little away, yet, from the attack.
The deep defence, thus could be manned (coach Subhas Bhowmick is yet to decide on this) by two on-lien players from Air India, Radha Krishna Dube and George Davis. Dube will probably be asked to act the sweeper.
“I say this defensive problem has become too stark now, and it will only depend on how my strategy translates to the players Thursday that will make the difference,” said Bhowmick.
That apart, East Bengal are pretty much infested with injuries, the flu and the like. Alvito De Cunha will be around, but only just, suffering from the flu that he is and Mike Okoro, the mainstay of the attack, is suffering from exhaustion. Also Surya Bikash Chakraborty is recovering from fever and doesn’t look too good for Thursday.
One small plus will be full-time return to match-play (he did do half-duties earlier) of Falguni Dutta. This will be his first big match after his accident. The team will depend a lot on his overlapping and, provided he retains his speed, that could make or break the rival defence.
Habeeb’s answer to this will be Mustafi. “Last time S. Malswamtluanga sneaked in twice past my defence,” said Habeeb. “With Mustafi back, I hope to seal this gap. Also, Seriki will add muscle in the attack, but the fact that he has not been getting goals, will have to be looked into. He has been on the wrong side of refereeing mismanagement often, and that could be taking its toll.”
Malswamtluanga isn’t the only problem for Habeeb, though. The East Bengal forward line has ‘clicked’, so to say. Bereft of individual brilliance (except for some consistent play by Okoro), they have developed a fine-tuned combination that allows set-pieces top be rehearsed and executed. This has been evident in East Bengal’s matches this season, and, with the withdrawn K. Kulothungan, the attacking trio remains a potent force.
Hence the ‘marking’ of Okoro alone, or the stopping of Malswamtluanga isn’t going to solve Habeeb’s problems as long as the third man is at large too. It is going to be a problem.
For both coaches, it is a “crunch match”. For Bhowmick to secure celebration rights, and Habeeb for a shot at that. Mohun Bagan are lying low at this point, but if Mohammedan Sporting win tomorrow, they will be back in the race with gusto. It is a comeback year for Mohammedan Sporting, and the fans have given throaty support all along (Dipendu Biswas has been forced to put his head to the ball in otherwise dull shows), something coach Bhowmick says he “misses” from his fans.
The problem that will plague both teams equally will be the Salt Lake turf. It has not been getting any better with the rains and soggy, flaky that the ground is, it has been hindering proper soccer for long. The teams practised on rather soggy ground (home turfs) this morning, and if they harbour hopes of a decent surface to show some “soccer”, they are most likely to be disappointed. “Fortunately, it will be the same for both,” echoed the coaches.