The Red and Gold Brigade are trailing table-toppers Chennai City by a single point.
Destiny awaits East Bengal on Saturday. The Red and Gold Brigade have waited 15 years for the coveted I-League/NFL title, only to miss out on it at the last moment. The road to the final hurdle’s been a treacherous one for Alejandro Menendez’s side, yet the Spaniard’s wit along with the never-say-die attitude of this rejuvenated group, has enabled them to now sit a point behind the league leaders.
Roll things back to a couple of months ago and it didn’t seem like the I-League would even be competitive this season. Chennai City were rick-rolling past every opposition, with East Bengal’s three losses in a row putting them in a precarious position. However, since the topsy-turvy start, Menendez has prioritized patience in helping his side gel into a complete unit, something which could be rewarded come Saturday.
For now, the Red and Gold Brigade also need “Lady Luck” to finally shine over them after more than a decade of despair. East Bengal have come close to the I-League title many times over the years, yet it has never felt this close. With Menendez’s unit looking more confident than ever, they’ll need to play their hearts out against Gokulam Kerala, while hoping their luck shines in Chennai City dropping at home to Minerva Punjab.
East Bengal will be missing the services of prolific striker Jobby Justin against Gokulam Kerala
That being said, East Bengal cannot only rely on luck to see them through. They need to show nerves of steel and cannot afford to choke at the final hurdle for which they’ve become infamous. They’re almost close to gaining the reputation for being the Indian Liverpool, but for all the wrong reasons. The senior figures need to step up, making sure pressure doesn’t give them cold feet once again.
Menendez might’ve endured his fair share of criticism with three losses on the trot earlier this season, which would’ve gotten him sacked under former management, but his recovery is admirable. He was recently awarded for his heroics with a new two-year deal, keeping him at the club till 2021.
This shows Quess’ effective long-term planning for the club and how they want to continue the Red and Gold’s growth. The Spaniard’s not only gotten them to play beautiful, passing, attacking football, but more importantly, improved the domestic players in the team. His work with elevating the youngsters and getting the best out of Justin, Lalram Chullova or even Manoj Md. has been impressive. But, for now, his target is to rally his players forward for the final challenge.
Lalrindika Ralte, the senior-most figure in all senses, has to turn up and lead from the front. Didika’s played for the Red and Gold Brigaders for six years in two stints, feeling the despair many times over the years. Yet, if he crumbles under pressure this time, he could risk damaging his whole side’s solidity.
As a matter of fact, East Bengal’s defence needs to be at 100% to keep out the venomous attack of Gokulam Kerala. Like Minerva Punjab in the other game, the Malabararians will not allow them to take the crown easily.
The commendable duo of Borja Gomez Perez and Johnny Acosta need to marshall their troops perfectly, while Kassim Aidara must bring his A game to aid their cause. Lalram Chullova’s moment of reckoning comes against Marcus Joseph, while Menendez needs to make a key decision about whether to risk young Manoj or continue with Kamalpreet Singh.
With Justin suspended, Enrique Esqueda will look to continue his goalscoring heroics, while Jaime Santos and Toni Dovale aim for positive outings. Laldanmawia Ralte, their second-highest Indian goalscorer with seven, needs be in his fiery element rather than being crowded out.
The Red and Gold will have to work as a complete unit in order to finish their season strongly and do their end of the bidding. After that, only the footballing gods can decide their fate. However, if luck does favour them, this inspired campaign is worthy for breaking their jinx and lifting the coveted I-League title that’s evaded them for far too long.