The Red and Gold were the runners-up in the league last season.

An invisible curse has embodied East Bengal in their I-League journey over the decade, with the Red and Gold often coming close, but faltering at the final hurdles to lose out on ultimate glory. Now, that it has been confirmed that two I-League teams will be promoted to the Indian Super League next season, this could be their final shot at redemption before moving to a different league.

Alejandro Menendez, now into his second season at the helm, has moulded together a squad he envisioned upon arrival. So, the pressure is firmly on a club riddled by high expectations, But, they can only reach the pinnacle by embracing the pressure throughout the campaign.

Last Season’s Performance

East Bengal started the season a bit slowly last time around, with three defeats in a row even threatening Menendez’s job security at one point. But, his team turned things around fabulously in the second half of the term, winning games at a stretch and memorably pulling off the double over arch-rivals Mohun Bagan in the league.

However, they couldn’t weather the storm of the high-flying Chennai City in their crunch meetings. Hnce, they finished second, only a single point behind the eventual champions and missed out on an I-League title once again.

Pre-Season

Quess East Bengal Vs Bengaluru FC Friendly

East Bengal drew against Bengaluru FC in a friendly match

East Bengal started off their pre-season campaign by participating in the Calcutta Football League, where they finished third behind Mohun Bagan and eventual champions Peerless SC.

The Red and Gold also took part in the Durand Cup 2019, where they finished above Bengaluru FC ‘B’ in the group stages, but fell to eventual champions Gokulam Kerala in the semi-finals. Their I-League pre-season campaign also began earlier this month, when they drew with Bengaluru FC and NorthEast United 1-1 and 0-0 respectively.

Coaching Staff

Alejandro Menendez penned a two-year contract extension with the club after his impressive work encouraged them to seal his future. The Spaniard’s heroics in establishing a never-say-die attitude into the side, encouraging discipline and intricate tactics worked wonders with East Bengal last season, winning them 13 league games.

Quess East Bengal head coach Alejandro Menendez

The Spaniard is being considered as one of the best coaches in India at the moment

However, the former Real Madrid Castilla coach will be without his video analyst/assistant coach Mario Rivera, who left after the last campaign. Instead, Josep Ferre will be his right-hand man, while physical trainer Carlos Nodar also agreed to stay with the Red and Gold.

Experienced former goalkeeper Abhra Mondal has joined the backroom staff as the goalkeeping coach, to help the shot-stoppers at the club. Bastob Roy continues to be another assistant coach with Menendez, to help the Spaniard understand Indian players better.

Transfers

Ins

East Bengal have had a significant overhaul during the summer, bringing in esteemed new foreigners as well as some promising Indian players. Former Delhi Dynamos defender Marti Crespi was roped in to strengthen their backline, while Juan Mera Gonzalez was brought in to liven things up in the final third.

Marcos de la Espada East Bengal

Marcos de la Espada joined East Bengal in the summer

They also signed a new striker in Marcos de la Espada, as well as young Goan forward Ronaldo Olivera. Menendez’s philosophy of creating a younger side was evident when the club loaned in Lalthuammawia Ralte from FC Goa and Abhijit Sarkar from Chennaiyin FC.

The Red and Gold have also signed former Mohun Bagan duo Pintu Mahata and Abhishek Ambekar to strengthen the wide areas. Boithang Haokip and Asheer Akhtar were also roped in from Bengaluru FC, as was Naorem Tondomba Singh from NEROCA FC, to prove just how invested Menendez is on revolving his side around talented youth players.

Outs

Johnny Acosta East Bengal

Johnny Acosta was arguably the most high-profile name to leave East Bengal in the summer

While there were quite a few signings made by East Bengal, they also shelved out a bunch of players from last season. Enrique Esqueda and Johnny Acosta were both released, as was Toni Dovale after an uneventful loan spell. Jobby Justin and Salam Ranjan Singh joined ATK, while Surabuddin Mollick, Koushik Sarkar and Lalram Chullova joined arch-rivals Mohun Bagan. Laldanmawia Ralte also left to join new ISL side Hyderabad FC. Bali Gagandeep returned to Punjab FC, while Ubaid CK joined Gokulam Kerala. Unused stars Kingshuk Debnath and Hira Mondal were also released.

Squad

Goalkeeper: L. Ralte, Rakshit Dagar, Mirshad Michu,

Defenders: Samad Ali Mollick, Mehtab Singh, Borja Gomez, Marti Crespi, Abhishek Ambekar, Kamalpreet Singh, Asheer Akhtar, Manoj Mohammed.

Midfielders: Pintu Mahata, Lalrindika Ralte, Kassim Aidara, Brandon Vanlalremdika, Naorem Tondomba Singh, Prakash Sarkar, Juan Mera Gonzalez, PC Rohlupuia, Boithang Haokip.

Forwards: Bidyasagar Singh, Jaime Colado, Marcos de la Espada, Ronaldo Oliviera.

Formation & Tactics

Alejandro Menendez is showing a preference to work with a 4-4-1-1 formation with the Red and Gold this season, in an attempt to make his team as compact and productive as possible.

There should be a new-look backline for them this term, with Samad Ali Mollick and Kamalpreet Singh looking set for full-back roles, thanks to their versatility. Marti Crespi and Mehtab Singh’s combination has looked really strong recently, but even one involving Borja Gomez and Asheer Akhtar could be played later on in the season.

I-League 2019-20 East Bengal probable lineup

East Bengal’s probable lineup in the I-League 2019-20 season

Pintu Mahata and Juan Mera Gonzalez will bring speed as well as creativity down the flanks, while the bankable combination of Kassim Aidara and Lalrindika Ralte should be preferred going forward. Upfront, Jaime Colado will play the withdrawn striker’s role to float all around the final third, while Marcos De La Espada will be leading them from the front.

Menendez likes his defenders to play the ball out from the back, while his full-backs often march forward with overlapping runs to stretch the opposition. Aidara will be sitting ahead of his centre-backs, while Ralte and Gonzalez pull the strings in creative roles. Mahata is their speed merchant, while Colado has been given a free role to move into space, drop deep to create chances and make late runs into the box to finish off moves.

Strengths

East Bengal have mastered the art of the intricate passing style, carving open oppositions with their unpredictable creative drive. They’re also very adaptable to different situations, knowing how to expose their opponents’ vulnerabilities and capitalize on them. The Red and Gold are extremely strong on the wings, having enough punch and power to drag defenders out of position.

They’re also impressive on set-pieces, thanks to the towering figures in the squad as well as Lalrindika Ralte’s remarkable delivery. Menendez’s philosophy means they’re especially strong playing their way out of trouble and transitioning quickly with swift counter-attacks, which are a rare sight in Indian football.

Weaknesses

Despite their impressive work going forward, East Bengal are still a bit dicey at finishing off chances. After losing both Esqueda and Justin, they’re lacking clinical goalscorers. They’re also susceptible to defending against teams blessed with pace and high intensity, often losing concentration in matches. The goalkeeping situation remains unconvincing, as Lalthuammawia Ralte is error-prone and so is Rakshit Dagar.

Players To Watch

Juan Mera Gonzalez

To bring a brighter creative spark into the team, Juan Mera Gonzalez was swooped upon by East Bengal. The former Sporting Gijon ‘B’ and Celta Vigo ‘B’ winger brings a lot of spice to the final third, with his unpredictable threat down the left. While he’s also capable of playing in the No. 10 role. Gonalez’s inviting crosses and through-balls can open up defences like knife through butter. He’s also an expert set-piece taker, giving his teammates enough incentive to be alert in such situations. Knowing his creativity, Gonzalez should light up the I-League this season.

Bidyasagar Singh

While he had to be happy with playing as a substitute through last season, Bidyasagar Singh looks ready to challenge for the forward’s role this campaign. He’s scored nine goals for the Red and Gold in pre-season tournaments, looking sharp and lethal after a year’s learning under Menendez. Singh’s pace, close-control and ability to skip past defenders makes him a menacing threat. His goalscoring heroics will make it difficult for his tactician to not start him. While Singh will look to learn from the more senior Espada, his ability to impact games could be East Bengal’s secret weapon this season.

Jaime Santos Colado

Jaime Santos Colado East Bengal

Colado (Left) is one of the most integral members of the East Bengal squad

Jaime Colado took his time adapting to Indian conditions, but now seems a much more complete striker for East Bengal. He’s all set to play in a more expressive role this season, something the tenacious attacking midfielder should thrive in. Colado is at his most dangerous when wandering into pockets of space, dragging defenders out and firing ahead with the ball. He’s an expert finisher, having an impressive range in the final third. The Spaniard recognizes what his coach wants much better and with Esqueda gone, he’ll be roaring to move the Red and Gold forward.

What To Expect

With such a talented squad, under an experienced coach like Menendez, East Bengal will play some beautiful, attacking football this season. But, it’s that sinking feeling of past failures, which could create added pressure, leading to disaster. If Menendez can weather the storm and get rid of this mental block, perhaps the club can finally get their hands on the coveted I-League title.