| Geylang United coach Scott O’Donnell during practice at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday
Calcutta: Look at it as a consequence of trying to dream big or the vagaries of a hectic calendar, the grind is not just ending for East Bengal.
Having got barely a week to savour the National Football League triumph after an exhausting season, they were back at the training ground, under a punishing sun, for Wednesday’s AFC Cup match against Singapore’s Geylang United.
There was still some motivation left during Tuesday’s training session for Bhaichung Bhutia and friends. They are within sniffing distance of the quarter finals — in the second tier of the Asian club championship which has been divided into three segments.
A draw against the Singapore outfit, whom East Bengal beat 3-2 in the away match, will see them advance as group E champions. Even in the event of a defeat, followed by another against Negeri Sembilan in Malaysia, there is a strong chance that East Bengal will make the cut as one of three best second-placed teams from the five groups.
So what is the big deal, East Bengal are almost there, one may say. “No, we want to qualify as group champions. After working so hard, why shouldn’t we think of doing that. That’s what I have told my players,” said Subhas Bhowmick.
However, it seems at the moment that the odds are stacked against East Bengal. A clutch of their key players, especially in the area the coach pays maximum attention to, is missing. Absent are defensive screens Douglas da Silva, Debjit Ghosh and deep defender M. Suresh, apart from crafty midfielder Alvito D’Cunha and Subhas Chakraborty.
There is one more concern — whether the players have gone into a relaxed mode. The temperamental East Bengal coach reacted in a somewhat dismissive manner when asked whether there is a chance that his players will be a touch lax, after the NFL triumph.
“We all are professionals and have to be prepared to give off our best any time, for any match,” retorted Bhowmick. Star striker Bhutia, though, felt that overcoming this “relaxed” state of mind would be the biggest task.
On the players missing, the coach was more affirmative. “I told those available ‘what are you guys in the team for, don’t you have a role to play’,” was how Bhowmick put it across. The positive attitude notwithstanding, problems are staring at East Bengal, especially against a team both Bhowmick and Bhutia rate as the toughest in their group.
Indications are that Chandan Das and Bijen Singh will be used to plug the gaps in midfield, while Surkumar Singh will team up with Dipak Mondal and Mahesh Gawli in deep defence in place of the indisposed Suresh.
The coach said he will play safe and look for chances to counter-attack. He succeeded with this strategy several times this season and will once again bank on the game-making skills of Mike Okoro and the scoring prowess of Bhutia and Cristiano Junior.
Though he may not say it in as many words, Bhowmick must be relying heavily on the fact that the match will begin at 3.45 pm, against a team that plays all its matches back home under lights. He must relish this prospect of baking the Eagles (as Geylang call themselves) under the merciless afternoon sun.
And now, the Eagles may have dared into unknown territory, but they have not come unprepared. Coach Scott O’Donnell informed they were anticipating this and trained under similar conditions before embarking on the Indian challenge.
In order to get used to the heat, the Geylang players trained for nearly an hour around noon. They are hungry for a victory, which will boost their chances of topping the group and the visitors feel they are better prepared than they were for the home meeting.
“That’s true, we were in a preparatory stage when that match took place. Our season had just started, while East Bengal had already played quite a few matches. We are in much better shape now,” said Geylang’s Australian coach Scott O’Donnell.
“But we know that this is going to be our toughest match, given the way things have unfolded in this group. It’s a lot drier here as compared to Singapore but we have prepared keeping that in mind. Heat shouldn’t be an excuse.”
His team has three foreigners — Australian striker Alexander Duric, English defender Daniel Hill and Chinese forward Chang Hui. O’Donnell is missing Hafiz Rahim, who has been called to the national camp. Chang and Noor Ali are the players who were not available for the first leg.
Geylang are currently placed fifth in the S-League. Points-wise, however, they are even with the second-placed team with goal averages separating four teams behind the leaders. They have won three matches in the AFC Cup after losing to East Bengal in their opening game and the coach says they are getting better.
True, adjusting to the heat will be the test for Geylang and it will be no less a challenge for Bhowmick to force a good result with so many important players not around. It is a test he would have preferred to avoid towards the end of a gruelling season. But then, the best save the best for the end.
It’s time for East Bengal to ensure that all the hard work done this season bears fruit.
| HOW THEY FARED
• In Singapore: bt Geylang 3-2
• In Calcutta: bt Negeri Sembilan 4-2
• In Male: bt Islands FC 2-1
• In Calcutta: bt Islands FC 3-0
• Points: 12 from 4 games
• In Singapore: lost to East Bengal 2-3
• In Male: bt Islands FC 5-0
• In Kuala Lumpur: bt Negeri 1-0
• In Singapore: bt Negeri 2-1
• Points: 9 from 4 games