The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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East Bengal are my ‘top seeds’
In Suley Musah and Douglas da Silva, East Bengal have two high-quality foreigners

The eighth edition of the National Football League (NFL) is all set to get rolling. The challenge for the crown this time is expected to come from teams like East Bengal, Mahindra United, Salgaocar and Mohun Bagan. The other teams from Goa can’t be written off as the standard of competition there is more intense than in any other state league at this moment.

It looks like an open race, but in every contest there has to be a favourite and my money in this case is on East Bengal. Come to think of it, they still have the best of Indian talent and some strong foreign players in key positions and thus justify the billing of ‘top seeds’.

True, their performance after the ASEAN Club Championship has not matched expectations. They have won just one title, the local league, since and lost in the finals of two other tournaments — the IFA Shield and Durand Cup. They were earlier knocked out of the Federation Cup in the second round and even the Super Cup eluded them recently.

They can still take heart from all this. A closer look at their performance reveals that in the course of this sustained ‘failure’, East Bengal have been beaten in regulation time just twice — by Vasco in the Federation Cup and by Mohammedan Sporting in the Super Division league.

The rest of East Bengal’s defeats have come in tie-breakers and this is something the coach, players and fans can take heart from. Considering all aspects that make a good football team, East Bengal are still ahead of their rivals. They have the best Indian defenders, good snatchers and spoilers in midfield and a force called Bhaichung Bhutia up front. Add to this an allround performer like Suley Musah, a terrific midfielder in Douglas da Silva, and you do get a force to reckon with.

The presence of these two foreigners adds musclepower to the East Bengal machine. The best thing about the Brazilian and the Ghanaian is their ability to adapt to conditions. They are physically so sound, they can perform at a consistent level irrespective of the state of the ground, weather and other variables. They also have good tactical sense and can change the speed of the game according to the need of the hour.

Mike Okoro, the Nigerian striker, is yet to find the kind of form which made him such a prolific scorer last season, but he is sure to come good for he has all the necessary qualities.

One area in which East Bengal have been found wanting is the absence of a creative mind in midfield. They have enough strength in this position, but not enough skill and imagination to match that power. This is a crucial aspect of the game and the team’s recent inability in finding the goal can be attributed to this.

But there still is hope for East Bengal, as they have a player in Alvito D’Cunha who can shoulder this responsibility. He has vision, can hold the ball and also slip in that decisive final pass as was seen in the ASEAN Cup final against BEC Tero Sasana. If he is fit and used in this position, a lot of East Bengal’s concerns will be taken care of.

It has to be remembered that during the period when East Bengal failed to win a title, they could hardly field the set of players they wanted to. Many were out with injuries and some of them were key players in crucial positions. Considering that, I don’t think they have done too badly. Yes, they did not win trophies, but they were seldom defeated outright.

Coach Subhas Bhowmick did a sensible thing by not using his injured stars even under extreme pressure and this should pay dividends if these players come back fit and strong for the NFL. Also, the players should feel this urge to repay the club which stood by them in difficult times and spared them the rigours of playing with injuries.

Bhowmick has to keep emotions in check. He made a mistake by criticising administrators after the success in Jakarta. Some of it was justified, but the extent to which he went was unnecessary. It surely resulted in him and his team losing focus and the results are there to be seen. He has to remember that not many coaches in India get to work with the set of players he wants and for such a long period. This East Bengal outfit is more or less the same as last year and the team has only gained courtesy the fresh recruits. It’s time Bhowmick made the most of it.

A look at Mohun Bagan clearly suggests they have succeeded in moving out of the doldrums they found themselves in at the start of the season. The gap with East Bengal is not too big any more. Jose Ramirez Barreto has taken his time to recover from injury and if their new Brazilian recruits click, Mohun Bagan will surely be a force in the ensuing NFL. Don’t forget, they too have some fine Indian players in their ranks. Things in their camp look far better than they had when the season started.

The other Calcutta teams, Mohammedan Sporting and Tollygunge Agragami, are behind the rest in this race. Surely, it will be Tollygunge’s toughest test in the NFL top tier thus far.

Among outstation teams, Salgaocar and Mahindra look as if they will pose a stiff challenge. The other Goan teams are also capable of causing a surprise or two. Having said that, I have little doubt that East Bengal start favourites. The recent bad patch and bad luck may just be a blessing in disguise.

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