East Bengal’s day of reckoning has arrived. On one hand, they are carrying the hopes of thousands, on the other, they are running the risk of drawing adverse remarks from the sceptics.
They have to reach the ASEAN Club Championship final to justify the hype and hard work that preceded their trip to Indonesia. If they fail, magnifying glasses are ready to zoom in on their expensive and expansive preparation programme for what critics will call a sub-standard tournament.
I will differ. It doesn’t matter that the quality of competition in Indonesia is not the most intense by Asian standards. The point to note here is that East Bengal and Subhas Bhowmick have set a precedent. They have understood and worked on the crucial aspects of pre-season training and planning. Things have rarely been so business-like in Indian football.
On the field, East Bengal start favourites in Thursday’s semi-final. I think they seriously believe they can put it across a team that isn’t going great guns in the Indonesian league of late.
True, Petrokimia Putra will enjoy the advantage of playing at home. But I believe this East Bengal team has the fire to negate that advantage. Bhowmick’s boys have it in them to weather that pressure. They have done it once, and at least on paper, can do it again.
Technically, this East Bengal team is not outstanding.
They are heavily dependent on defence, there is little spark or surprise in attack and there is hardly any exceptional talent in the creative department. But this lot is fiercely combative. More important, it is extremely fit.
Realising its importance, raising the level of fitness has been Bhowmick’s most creditable achievement. The club should also be praised for hiring a foreign professional to take care of this.
Indians were known to last 60-65 minutes in an international match and this was a major reason for our failure to make it big. This East Bengal team is fit enough to operate at good speed for at least 80 minutes and this will be a key factor in Thursday’s semi-final. This, in fact, was the decisive factor in East Bengal’s victory in the quarter finals.
Fitness apart, the other features of this East Bengal team are also worth a look.
This team believes it can do well in this competition. Such confidence was rarely seen among Indians and this psychological strength is a major asset. They know most teams in this meet are not of the highest order, and can be beaten if planning and application are proper. India teams have rarely believed so strongly in themselves in the recent past.
This is also a fiercely combative lot. They didn’t choke when the referee awarded a horrendous penalty against them in the previous match. Many teams would have crumbled but East Bengal countered it with fresh vigour. This trait is essential to succeed in international games on foreign soil. This East Bengal team has shown they won’t die until they are dead.
Tactically, Bhowmick has been very sound so far. He knows the importance of a strong defence and has shown astute judgment in picking his players. He has followed the book and played safe against teams he doesn’t know much about. He has successfully employed other layers of resistance in front of the backline proper and minimised the risk factor. The only hitch here is that it has kept him from increasing men upfront during counterattacks .
The other boon for East Bengal has been the presence of foreigners Suley Musah and Douglas de Silva. East Bengal possess the best of Indian defenders. But these foreigners have added depth to the already strong mechanism of resistance. Both are tall and powerfully built and can take enormous workload. The presence of these two make East Bengal a very formidable lot, even by Asian standards.
The Bhutia factor
The presence of Bhaichung Bhutia has been a major boost to East Bengal. The striker is among goals and this has done his confidence a world of good. He is not yet at his best, but getting sharp with every outing. Scoring regularly in international matches, the quality of opposition notwithstanding, is an achievement and Bhutia is doing just that.
He is hungry, keen and has an urge to ply his trade for a foreign team. This personal motivation will only help East Bengal and Bhutia looks determined to make a mark at the Asian level. His mental make-up is different from average Indian footballers and he believes he can succeed beyond Indian shores.
Bhutia likes to test his abilities against better opposition and tries to surpass himself in every outing. The only problem is he is not getting enough support upfront. He is getting outnumbered in the striking area while on the counters and this is something the coach has to look at.
The injury to Debjit Ghosh may have come as a blessing in disguise as it will force them to field an additional attacking midfielder. If they do that, they will stand a better chance of upstaging yet another home team. The odds are in their favour.