The Red & Gold Brigade are hoping to put the previous season behind and start afresh in the upcoming campaign.
Following a forgetful campaign in their debut Indian Super League season, SC East Bengal have pressed the reset button. But they return under similar circumstances with a hastily-arranged team and a manager selected just two months before the start of the season. What didn’t help was also the club’s long ownership battle with investors Shree Cement over the signing of the final draft, a definitive agreement to which both parties had previously agreed. It meant that by the time West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her government intervened and acted as mediators to break the deadlock, SC East Bengal were left with a limited pool of players.
The century-old club only joined India’s latest premier football league last season after years of plying trade in the I-League, which was the top division previously. However, their debut season didn’t go as per plans. This year they return with a new coach, team and a renewed hope of churning out better performance.
Last Season’s Performance: Ninth
SC East Bengal finished at the ninth spot in their debut campaign in the ISL with only three wins in 20 games, same as Kerala Blasters who ended a position below. Overall, the Red & Gold Brigade conceded 33 goals, third-worst in the league and netted only 22 times. They also faced nine defeats, including losses in both of the Kolkata Derbies.
After the dismal season in the 2020-21 season, the club have parted ways with Robbie Fowler and replaced him with Spaniard Jose ‘Manolo’ Diaz. The squad have also undergone an overhaul with only nine players retained from last season. Under Fowler, the team aimed to play possessional football but lacked the players to do so. But this season, SC East Bengal have assembled a fairly decent squad with some exciting names in there.
The club started their pre-season in mid-October and have so far played three friendlies, winning all including a 2-1 victory over I-League champions Gokulam Kerala. After completing their eight-day quarantine on reaching Goa, SC East Bengal started their camp under their newly appointed head coach. The side played their first friendly on October 15 against Vasco SC, breezing past them with a 3-1 win. It was followed by a 2-0 victory against Salgaocar on 16th before beating Gokulam four days later.
SC East Bengal’s pre-season was, however, halted after the club had to shift base following a breach in COVID-19 protocol in their hotel. After observing another eight-day quarantine following the change in hotels, Diaz’s side resumed their training last week.
After Robbie Fowler’s exit, SC East Bengal appointed Manolo Diaz as their head coach for ISL 2021-22. Diaz, who played and coached Real Madrid’s youth teams, joins the club on a season-long contract. The 53-year-old’s last coaching experience – before East Bengal came calling was at Hercules CF, a fourth-division club in Spanish football.
Diaz started his managerial career at Real Madrid, where he served as the coach of youth teams in between spells at Deportivo Navalcarnero and Hercules CF. At Madrid, Diaz coached the Juvenil sides as well as the Real Castilla, who play in the third-tier. In his last spell at Hercules CF, Diaz enjoyed a decent stint before joining SC East Bengal. Like most Spanish coaches, Diaz believes in possession football and his teams usually play out from the back.
Fellow Spaniard Angel Puebla Garcia, who has also worked at Real Madrid previously, will be the assistant coach as well as strength and conditioning coach. Garcia comes with the prior experience of coaching some top names in Spain, which includes Raul, David Villa and David Silva. He has also worked under Vicente del Bosque and Rafa Benitez, both at Real Madrid. The other members of the SC East Bengal coaching staff are:
Indian Assistant: Renedy Singh
Goalkeeping Coach: Leslie Cleevely
Sports Scientist: Joseph Ronald D’Angelus
Team Manager: Mridul Banerjee
After a dismal previous season, SC East Bengal released all players from the previous squad, barring nine. The club have also opted against to retain any of their previous overseas players and underwent a complete overhaul.
With the number of foreigners now reduced to six in the squad and four in the playing XI, SC East Bengal have picked players from five different nations. Australian Tomislav Mrcela and Franjo Prce of Croatia are the centre-backs, while Amir Dervisevic (Slovenia) and Darren Sidoel (Netherlands) will play in the midfield. Antonio Perosevic (Croatia) and Daniel Chima Chukwu (Nigeria) are the two overseas strikers.
Among the domestic signings, the club have signed Adil Khan on loan from Hyderabad FC and Jackichand Singh from defending champions Mumbai City. SC East Bengal have also extended contracts of Raju Gaikwad, Ankit Mukherjee, Sourav Das, Sankar Roy and Wahengbam Angousana. Arindam Bhattacharya, who won the ISL Golden Glove last season after registering 10 clean-sheets with ATK Mohun Bagan, joined the club after leaving the Mariners. Another notable domestic signing is Amarjit Singh Kiyam, who has joined the club on loan from FC Goa. The former India U-17 captain will bolster East Bengal’s midfield which looked out of sorts last season.
The club had also signed Subha Ghosh (on loan), Sarineo Fernandes, Romeo Fernandes and Songpu Singsit this summer. However, they have released them alongside four other players before the start of the season.
As aforementioned, SC East Bengal released all of their foreign signings from last season. The club also released the majority of their domestic signings, retaining only nine players.
Many from the previous squad left the club and moved elsewhere when the club’s future in the ISL looked uncertain. Narayan Das and Debjit Majumder have joined Chennaiyin FC. Among the foreigners, Anthony Pilkington and Bright Enobakhare are notable exclusions.
Goalkeepers: Arindam Bhattacharya, Sankar Roy, Suvam Sen
Defenders: Daniel Gomes, Joyner Lourenco, Raju Gaikwad, Adil Khan, Hira Mondal, Ankit Mukherjee, Goutam Singh, Tomislav Mrcela, Franjo Prce, Sarineo Fernandes, Akashdeep Singh
Midfielders: Jackichand Singh, Sourav Das, Angousana Wahengbam, Amarjit Singh Kiyam, Md Rafique, Lalrinliana Hnamte, Bikash Jairu, Amir Dervisevic, Darren Sidoel, Romeo Fernandes, Songpu Singsit, Loken Meitei
Forwards: Balwant Singh, Thongkhosiem Haokip, Naorem Mahesh, Siddhant Shirodkar, Daniel Chima Chukwu, Antonio Perosevic, Subha Ghosh
Note: Although named in the official squad, Subha Ghosh, Romeo Fernandes, Songpu Singsit, Loken Meitei, Akashdeep Singh, Sarineo Fernandes and Lalrinliana Hnamte are not in the final squad who are inside the bio-bubble.
Primary: 4-4-2 (Diamond)
Diaz mainly deploys a traditional 4-4-2 formation. However, given the lack of wingers at SC East Bengal, he is most likely to use the diamond formation at least at the start of the season. It offers him more stability in the middle of the park while striker duo Perosevic and Chima can play freely up front.
Amir Dervisevic is expected to play as the playmaker with the young Indian trio of Sourav, Amarjit and Angousana – who are expected to accompany him in the midfield. Md. Rafiq can also slot in as the attacking midfielder while Dervisevic shifts at the base of midfield in place of Angousana or Sourav, if the coach is looking for a change.
SC East Bengal have two overseas centre-backs in the squad. However, Diaz is likely to go with one Indian and one foreign centre-back.
Another formation Diaz can use is the 4-3-3 formation, which will allow them to use the wings more. Jackichand Singh will come in as the right-winger while Perosevic drops from his central role to the left-wing. Bikash Jairu can also play as a left-winger, but Perosevic’s experience and ability to find the back of the nets will come in handy.
Nothing much changes in midfield or in the defence with Angousana dropping to the bench for Jackichand. SC East Bengal also have Balwant Singh, who can play as an impact sub in this formation. With Jackichand’s crossing ability, Chima and Balwant will get more balls into the box to head them in.
- A strong foreign contingent. SC East Bengal have named an experienced overseas contingent which will allow coach Diaz to build the team around them. With their domestic players mostly young and experienced or past their prime, the presence of able foreign players will give them a balance.
- The signings of Jackichand Singh, Amarjit Singh Kiyam and Adil Khan has given the side three players who have featured in the ISL regularly and have also made international appearances in recent times. Amarjit played in the recent AFC U-23 Asian Cup Qualifiers while Jackichand and Adil Khan have been part of Igor Stimac’s national teams.
- Players like Hira Mondal, Ankit Mukherjee and Sourav Das are talented and can make the breakthrough this year. Das showed his quality by scoring an impressive goal in the 2-0 win over Salgaocar in a pre-season friendly. Naorem Mahesh Singh is another young player, who would be eager to prove his potential this season.
- The presence of Arindam Bhattacharya between the sticks gives the Kolkata-side with a solid goalkeeper. Arindam won the Golden Gloves last season after registering 10 clean-sheets, while SC East Bengal conceded 33 goals and kept only three clean sheets.
- For a side eyeing a top-four finish, SC East Bengal lack depth in multiple positions. They also lack many versatile players in the squad. An untimely injury to key players could prove to be disastrous for the team.
- Lack of many creative players could prove to be a challenge for the outfit.
- Lack of proved Indian goalscorers could become a problem for them. Balwant Singh is 34 and their first-choice domestic striker. Unless, Naorem Mahesh and Semboi Haokip deliver, the club would have to look towards their foreign strikers to score the goals.
Key Players to Watch
Amarjit Singh Kiyam
Still only 20, Amarjit Singh Kiyam looks beyond his years when he plays. But injuries and expectations have not been kind to this talented midfielder. Amarjit has somewhat gone under the radar after moving to Jamshedpur FC from Indian Arrows. While injury kept him out for much of the 2019-20 ISL season, Amarjit seemed to have cemented a place for himself in the Jamshedpur FC starting XI once he returned.
But a new season and a new coach meant everyone at Jamshedpur started fresh and Amarjit found it difficult to nail down a place in the starting XI. However, the move to FC Goa came at the right time and he impressed all with his performance in the heart of midfield in the AFC Champions League.
For this season, the 20-year-old has been loaned to SC East Bengal. With SCEB lacking depth in midfield, Amarjit is guaranteed of playing time. A good performance in the ISL could also open the door to the senior national team.
Never easy to leave a club where you find so much success. But Arindam loves new challenges. It is why he left ATK Mohun Bagan this summer after winning the Golden Gloves in the league with them last season. He had also won the ISL title with erstwhile ATK in the 2019-20 season before their merger with Mohun Bagan. Staying put at ATKMB would have meant Arindam could have played the AFC Cup. However, the 31-year-old joined the other side of the rivalry.
Be it at ATK Mohun Bagan or ATK or at Churchill Brothers, Arindam has always come out on top of new challenges. He kept 10 clean-sheets with ATK Mohun Bagan last season. But Habas’ side has arguably the best defence in the ISL. Can Arindam marshal the untested East Bengal back-line and produce a similar performance? If he does, SC East Bengal could very well end up in the playoffs.
Daniel Chima Chukwu
In his five seasons at Norwegian outfit Molde FK, Daniel Chima won the domestic league (Eliteserien) thrice and the Norwegian Cup twice. All between 2011 to 2014. Three of them came under current Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Nigerian has scored 50 times and assisted on 27 occasions in 162 matches for Molde. While that remains the most successful spell of his career, the 30-year-old has also played in the Chinese second-division for Shanghai Shenxin, Heilongjiang Ice City and Taizhou Yuanda.
Chima is a proven goalscorer and will lead the line for SC East Bengal. His experience of playing in the Europa League as well as the Champions League qualifiers will help the club’s young players. If Chima finds his scoring boots, SC East Bengal will not have problems finding the net.
The Slovenian midfielder will be tasked with not only controlling the midfield for SC East Bengal but also supplying the strikers with forward balls from the deep. As someone who can play both as a central or defensive midfielder, the 29-year-old will have an arduous task, given he is most likely to play alongside Sourav Das and Amarjit Singh in the middle of the park.
Like Chima, Amir also has experience of playing in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualifiers and has multiple titles in the Slovenian top-flight. He has mainly spent his career at NK Maribor, where he played for seven seasons between 2013 and 2020. In his club career, the midfielder has scored 31 goals and produced 27 assists. His playmaking abilities while also scoring goals from midfield will immensely help SC East Bengal.
What to Expect
After a forgettable debut season, SC East Bengal would be gunning for improved performance in ISL 2021-22 campaign. But do they have the squad to challenge the likes of FC Goa, Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan? Coach Manuel Diaz has already spoken of taking it a match by match and working on how to bring the best out of a limited squad. Like most clubs in the ISL, a top-four finish would be the real target. But it seems like it would take a miracle for SC East Bengal to get there.
Miracles though have occurred in sports more than in life. So don’t discount the Red & Gold Brigade. They play ATK Mohun Bagan in the Kolkata derby on November 27, their second match in this season. Just how much fight they put in there wouldn’t define their season. But it could define the road ahead for Manuel and his boys.