| Jose Ramirez Barreto practises with teammates on Monday, the eve of Mohun Bagan’s tie against East Bengal. Picture by Pabitra Das
Calcutta: Two teams play Tuesday for two very different stakes in their Calcutta Football League’s Super Division return encounter. East Bengal for their title, primarily; Mohun Bagan to gain a shot at the same via the play-off rule, as well as to boost morale before their September 22 AFC Champions League return match here vs Saunders Club of Sri Lanka.
Talk hovered this morning around who will play and who won’t, as if that alone will make the difference. Generally it does, but not in a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal league encounter, especially this one, from which a possible winner will emerge. As East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick put it: “This is always a passion match, something like an India-Pakistan hockey or cricket event and the prediction is always 50-50.”
If East Bengal win tomorrow, it will take a miracle for them to lose this title. They are on 27 points now, from 11 encounters, the same as Mohammedan Sporting (from 12 outings), while Mohun Bagan are on 19 from ten matches. If Mohun Bagan win all their three remaining engagements, they will be on 28 points, pushing out Mohammedan Sporting. Then the play-off happens. East Bengal will have only Port Trust to play, the weak one in the championship round of five. Of course, the equation changes if East Bengal win and then if Mohammedan Sporting also beat Mohun Bagan.
East Bengal will be handicapped Tuesday in the absence of consistent striker Mike Okoro (double booking) and deep defender Douglas De Souza (two-match ban via red card). That will mean there would no foreigner in the team at all. Since Mohun Bagan allowed foreigners on their roster, it is unlikely that any ‘big match’, so to say has ever been played sans a foreigner element. More importantly for East Bengal, the excellent combination that Okoro and S. Malswamtluanga and K. Kulothungan had developed will be missed.
With Malswamtluanga taking the lead in the attack, there will still be the speed, but the element of brusque and muscle will be missed. Bhowmick said Alvito De Cunha might be tried upfront, but that isn’t certain till the morning.
The bigger problem for Bhowmick will be the injuries and the defence. After morning practice, on last count, there are seven minor injury cases — Satish Kumar, Sandip Nandy, Chandan Das, Malswamtluanga, Subhasis Roy Chowdhury, M. Suresh and De Cunha. Nothing that they will not be able to carry onfield, but it offers little to team morale.
As for the defence, it was laid bare on several occasions by Mohammedan Sporting in their 3-3- draw the other day, and things have not improved since. Bhowmick, expectedly, is sure the title will not slip through his fingers. “We will be there first in case of a play-off, the league will have to decide our rivals. Period,” he said.
Mohun Bagan look cooler, though not obviously the stronger of the two teams. A comprehensive victory versus Saunders Club of Sri Lanka in their AFC Champions League away encounter has boosted morale and while this apparent complacency could backfire, it could also be the tonic.
Bagan will also miss a full complement team. Four players are in the national camp and the defence creates deep furrows on coach Subrata Bhattacharya’s forehead. The back line has never really performed well, but now there are more problems. Dulal Biswas has malaria and it is unlikely he will play, ditto for Satyabrata Bhowmick with his knee injury. Sumit Sengupta has gone off to play for his employers, the Railways.
So this will be the big day for, Jose Ramirez Barreto, as usual, and George Ekeh. A ton of load will be on their shoulders. Bhattacharya said he could push Ekeh back later, but made no bones about his trumpcards. “We will make the play-off, for sure,” said the coach.
Of course, Bhattacharya talked of the crowd factor, something Bhowmick has also put in perspective earlier. “You need some loyalty, you need some understanding,” said Bhattacharya. “A player cannot give off his best with such unruly elements around. We need supporters to pep us not to stone us. This attitude must stop.” He noticed how Mohun Bagan have consistently performed better outside Calcutta, sans “supporters”. The AFC match was a case in point.
Tuesday, though, as Bhowmick said: “Passion will rule.” That might not include soccer.