Calcutta, Dec. 7: The tension keeps building.
The National Football League (NFL) this season has been tough for all teams. There have been few indicators so far how the league would look midway, and East Bengal are second from top (nine points from three matches) and Mohun Bagan are way down (six points from four matches). But, as in the Manchester United-Arsenal mould, a clash between the two does always assume a different proportion.
Sunday’s is no different. The IFA Super Division League encounters seem so far away, so unimportant. This is the first time this season that the teams will be in full strength. That, everybody agrees, “makes it different”.
East Bengal’s Brazilian recruit Gilmar da Silva Goncalves has been pom-pomed as the rightful challenger to Mohun Bagan’s Jose Ramirez Barreto. Nobody knows, though, how Gilmar will combine with Mike Okoro.
Bhaichung Bhutia, strapped left calf muscle et al, is expected to be in the first XI frontline of Bagan. What happens if he has to limp off and Sunil Chhetri is left with a major load on his shoulder — assuming Chhetri does open on the frontal attack as coach Subrata Bhattacharya has indicated' It could get scaringly lonely with George Ekeh not around.
Barreto could come in withdrawn, the team needs his game-making abilities to feed those ahead. Talking about ‘ahead’, there isn’t too many options for coach Bhattacharya there. “Tell me, who will I put there'” he asks.
A minor trump card could be this north-east talent, Marlanki Sutang, who Bagan signed on Friday. This under-17 prodigy was a member of the junior national team. That is not a solution in this tension-prone derby. The best of them have faltered. But Sutang showed some fleet of foot on the wings in practice.
Isa Musa Eroje has a couple of fractured fingers on his left hand, and if Kajal Bhattacharya has any chance in the team and any chance of moving up to central midfielder spot (as a possible ‘snatcher’), will the Mohun Bagan defence be good enough in skipper Dulal Biswas and Palash Karmakar. Moreover, Biswas and Karmakar both are keen overlappers. That should leave the ’keeper (Rajat Ghosh Dastidar is tipped) a bit shaky, won’t it.
However, Satish Bharti seems to have kicked the flu bug out of his system — he practised long and hard — which is good news for Mohun Bagan’s back line.
East Bengal look decidedly better attired, and less confused.
The nays first. Out are Suley Musah, M. Suresh and Dipankar Roy (Roy hurt himself further at practice Saturday). That means a weaker defence and a lost change opportunity in attacking midfielder. On the face of it, looks manageable for coach Subhas Bhowmick.
The half line shows a roster of Douglas de Silva, K. Kulothungan, Malswamtluanga, Sasthi Duley and more. That is a good reserve for any team, and then Gilmar talks about how he and Douglas played together at Gremio in Brazil.
“We have handled pressure situations there,” he said, through interpreter Alvito D’Cunha. “But, of course, tomorrow will be the first time I will be wearing the East Bengal jersey, that’s important.” And that’s the reminder: Alvito could make a big difference, he keeps a cool head.
The attitude of the coaches, too, are so different this time. “Whatever the outcome tomorrow, I am not losing sleep over it,” said Bhattacharya, indicating that the League has a long way to go still. “I will have to use whatever I have, and to that extent, I am limited.”
“This is a league, so we definitely go in with a draw as first option, a win next,” was how Bhowmick put it. “I don’t see this match as any different from any other NFL match, except that we’ll all have to deal with a good deal of tension.” He is loathe to predict, and that’s good, because there’s sense in branding oneself the underdog with fan sentiment running a fever.
However, Bhowmick’s defence looks tighter, and he has found Gilmar “a fine footballer” in practice. The hidden trumpcard theory could work in early rushes. Strategically, that’s a ditto on either side. An early advantage is a big advantage. Hence there is this possibility of Bhattacharya using Bhaichung for a short early stint. He may not score (“I just can’t sprint,” he says), but he could set up a couple. If Bhaichung has to be replaced thereafter, Bagan would want a cushion by then.
Easier said than done. Bhaichung’s injury worries not for the morrow. It worries for the entire season for Bagan, and for an entire career for the player. “As players, we do not look for a drawish start,” said skipper Dulal Biswas, a mindset quite unlike his coach’s. “We will go out there to win. That’s it.”
There will be hell to pay if the attitude isn’t right in any corner at the Salt Lake Stadium Sunday.
the SQUADS (from)
MOHUN BAGAN: Rajat Ghosh Dastidar/Bivash Ghosh, Dulal Biswas, Isa Musa Eroje, Kajal Bhatacharya, Sumit Sengupta, Satish Bharti, Palash Karmakar, Rennedy Singh, Basudeb Mondal, Jayanta Sen, Jose Ramirez Barreto, Sunil Chhetri, Bhaichung Bhutia, Marlanki Sutang.
East Bengal: Sandip Nandy, Anit Ghosh, Dipak Mondal, Arun Malhotra, Amjad Ansari, S. Venkatesh, Sashhi Duley, Douglas de Silva, K. Kulothungan, Tushar Rakshit, Malswamtluanga, Alvito D’Cunha, Gilmar da Silva Goncalves, Mike Okoro.