The Red and Gold’s recent top flight campaigns have been a viscious circle that comes around every season.
Just before the start of I-League season, East Bengal were considered the strongest team on paper to win the title, as has been the story in the last few years. This time with Bengaluru FC moving to the Indian Super League, experts opined that it will be a two-horse race for the title, with either of the two Kolkata giants emerging champions.
This season, East Bengal officials and the team management were on the mark from the word go just after last season’s debacle. They appointed I-League winning coach Khalid Jamil as their new manager and also brought in Aizawl’s best players including the likes of Lalramchullova, Brandon Vanlalremdika, Laldanmawia Ralte and Mahmoud Al-Amnah who were electrifying for the Northeast outfit in securing the title last campaign. To strengthen their defense, which has been their Achilles Heel in recent years, they brought in BFC’s Salam Ranjan Singh and replaced Carlyle Mitchell with Eduardo Ferreira just a month to the start of the league.
The Red and Gold had been suffering fitness concerns towards the end of the last few seasons in crucial matches with their main players sitting out with injury. To address these issues, the EB bosses brought in physical trainer Miranda Garcia, from rivals Mohun Bagan, who played a very important role in the Mariners’ success in the last few years, with Japanese ace Katsumi Yusa also joining to fill the gap in midfield.
East Bengal officials and new coach Jamil also decided to promote some promising academy graduates who performed well in the youth I-League to the senior squad as their home-grown players.
With a slew of incomings in both playing and backroom staff, to go with East Bengal beating ISL teams such as FC Goa and Jamshedpur FC on their home soil, fans naturally believed that the Red and Gold were better placed than ever to end their title drought this season. This season they had had also filled in their quota of foreigners long before the start of the campaign, in itself a rare occurrence.
At the time of writing, Jamil’s men have played two matches in the I-League with one draw and one loss, that too to the arch-rivals Bagan in the season’s first Kolkata Derby. They are sitting sixth in the points table with just a point in their pocket.
East Bengal let a two-goal lead slip against Aizawl
In the opening match against Aizawl, they were leading by two goals and conceded two in the dying moments of the match to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. Jamil passed it off as a lapse in concentration by the defenders but, infact, both goals were down to silly errors likely a result of complacency on the part of the players. To fitter away two points in his first home game at his new club is hardly the start the experienced tactician would have wanted. The collapse was made even more perplexing by the fact that it was so unlike any of Jamil’s previous teams. There is no telling how pivotal those two dropped points could prove at the end of the season.
Ahead of Sunday’s derby against Bagan, Jamil worked a lot with his defense showing them the video clips of their match against Aizawl as well as the video of the Mariners’ match against Minerva. Especially, he was very particular about how to mark potent winger Sony Norde. Jamil impressed upon his players the need to avoid fouls in their own half. But, his players failed miserably to do so and conceded a free-kick early in the game. The goal they conceded saw the opposition’s best centre-back Kingsley Obumneme was unmarked in the box.
Now, with 16 games to go EB face an uphill task in trying to win the title and must look to put together a string of wins, if they are to keep pace with their cross-town rivals.
In the aftermath of their poor start to the season, East Bengal fans are already calling for the heads of a few players including the likes of Willis Plaza, Charles Souza and Armand Bazzou. Moreover, with the defense still unsettled, Jamil also finds himself missing a proven goalscorer who can guarantee goals game-in-game-out. At least as far as Plaza is concerned, it must be remembered that the forward was released after a disappointing last campaign, but it was Jamil who insisted on retaining him.
Nevertheless, some superstitious fans have also started saying that this East Bengal team and its jersey is so cursed that whoever wears it fails in it. Even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo with Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola as coach would fail to bring glory to the club. While you may rightly call these reactions hysterical, it is hard to blame the fans as they have waited nearly 15 years to see their club lift a national league title.
The Red and Gold’s recent poor record in the Kolkata Derby continued on Sunday
The club had many chances from 2011 to 2014 to win the I-League and the same holds true for 2016 and 2017. But, almost invariably, a good first half of the season was followed by a slump in the second, which has seen them fall at the final hurdle, repeatedly
Markedly common to almost all of EB’s nearly seasons in the league over the last decade has been the club management’s hire and fire policy, hoping in vain, to stumble upon the winning formula. They have kept up the trend in the last two seasons, first inexplicably going back to Trevor Morgan, who had failed to deliver in his first stint and now, buying in wholesale numbers from the reigning champions,
It has become clear that the club’s management has paid little heed to addressing the team’s deeper problems or assembling a balanced, well-rounded squad and instead have naively opted for maverick spending in their quest for the elusive title. With that being so, one has to ask the question as to how much of the Red and Gold’s persistent failings in the league are an accident and how much a consequence of their unplanned and haphazard style of functioning.
Be that as it may, with the merger of the I-League and ISL likely happening next season, if East Bengal fail to win the league in its last edition, the club’s supporters and fans will have to carry the burden of not winning the title on their shoulders till they breathe their last.
For the players, it could be argued; it matters less, as they are professionals and will move on to other clubs sooner or later. But, the biggest losers in East Bengal’ unheralded recent history, are the cub’s fans, who have undoubtedly been the most oppressed in Indian football.