|Cristiano Junior makes a point to coach Subhas Bhowmick (picture top) on Saturday, the eve of the NFL derby. Mohun Bagan players, on the other hand, are all ears to new technical director Subrata Bhattacharya. Pictures by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta, April 24: It’s the best of times for East Bengal and worst of times for Mohun Bagan.
The best of times has catapulted East Bengal (40 points from 18 matches) to the threshold of becoming the first team to win back-to-back National Football League (NFL) titles. A clear advantage over their nearest rivals, coupled with an unbeaten eight-match run against foreign teams, lend further credence to such conviction.
A special ‘century’ also beckons East Bengal. Of the 261 meetings with Mohun Bagan thus far, the red-and-gold brigade has won 99 times (and Mohun Bagan 68).
The worst of times, on the other hand, has seen Mohun Bagan (19 points from 18 games) struggling to overcome the threat of relegation. The shocking 1-5 defeat to Vasco in the previous match — their worst in the NFL and heaviest to an Indian rival after the 0-5 drubbing against East Bengal in 1975 — couldn’t have come at a more inappropriate juncture.
A change of guard — introduction of Subrata Bhattacharya as the team’s technical director — as well as a quickly-arranged residential camp, reflect the desperate measures the club is trying out to check its slide from the precocious to the precarious.
But Sunday’s clash between the arch-rivals is not just a tale of two glamorous sides taking the field in completely contrasting moods. It is, after all, derby time when facts, figures and fantasies make way for pressure, pride and prestige, when the past gets lost in the talk of the present only.
Both coaches have themselves been in the thick of such high-voltage matches during their playing days. No wonder, on the eve of the big match, Subhas Bhowmick and Bhattacharya maintained a studied silence on its fate.
Here is what Bhowmick had to say: “There is always some sentiment attached to a derby match. But having been part of it for about 40 years as a fan, player and now coach, I’ve seen so many pundits making a fool of themselves by predicting the result. Experience has taught me never to look back and I’ll only examine the match in its present context, which says we are not favourites.”
And now, Bhattacharya’s words of wisdom: “Anything can happen tomorrow. But a loss to East Bengal will not mean confirmation of our relegation. There are still many ways (to avoid the ignominy)… May be the team will turn around from tomorrow or may be from the next match. My target is simple — six points off the last four matches. From now on, points are vital, not wins.”
Always a student of the game looking beyond the result, Bhowmick’s stand of keeping mum is understandable. He doesn’t want his team to show any sign of complacency or slowing down with the finishing tape within sight.
“To be frank, I always want to win a match, because there is nothing sweeter than winning. But to get it, I won’t do anything that will force me to swallow a bitter pill,” the East Bengal coach said.
Bhattacharya’s worry is understandable too. “There are so many holes to be plugged, one shouldn’t expect an overnight change in this team. Even Carlos Bilardo could do nothing with it,” the Mohun Bagan coach observed after making the team sweat it out for over two hours in the morning.
“This East Bengal team is exceptional. The coach has successfully managed to imbibe his own attitude — his dare-devilry and robust optimism — into the squad and it’s being reflected in the performance. If I try to mark Bhaichung (Bhutia), Douglas (da Silva) will score with a free-kick… it’s a good little problem for me,” he added.
Considering his job at hand, Bhattacharya may adopt a defensive 5-4-1 formation, with Eduardo being the lone forward.
Bhowmick presented a wry smile when asked about his line-up. Injured Cristiano Junior and M. Suresh skipped the match-eve practice, though the former insisted he would play.
“It’s 50-50”, said East Bengal’s Debjit Ghosh. “We know it’s time to turn around,” maintained Mohun Bagan’s Ashim Biswas.
“We have to play really well (against East Bengal) to erase the trauma of that 1-5 defeat,” observed captain Rennedy Singh.
Make no mistake, the air will be heavy with this anything-can-happen ambience till Sunday’s kick-off (5.30 pm) at the Salt Lake Stadium.