East Bengal will walk down the tunnel to appear for one of the most important fixtures of the new season, when they take on the Indonesian club Semen Padang in an AFC Cup Quarter-final match on Tuesday. East Bengal had thrashed Myanmar's Yangon United 5-1 in Kolkata to advance to the last eight.
Life will not be easy for the Red and Gold's as the Indonesian Premier League (IPL) front-runners Semen Padang are all set to give them a run for their money. Unlike the Indian side, their opponents are midway through to their football season and have pulled off a number of quality performances in the domestic arena where they have won 13 of their 16 matches in the league.
However, for East Bengal, it will be a fresh start under the tutelage of Brazilian gaffer Marcos Falopa, who replaces the successful figure of Trevor James Morgan at the helm of the century-old club.
The officials have sealed a number of big summer signings including James Moga, Ryuji Sueoka, Joaquim Abranches and Shylo Malswam Tulunga, but it remains to be seen whether the available midfielders can fill up the creative void left by Penn Orji.
The forward line has however become more deadlier as Chidi Edeh will be joined by the prolific James Moga there. Abhijit Mondal will continue to be the first choice goalkeeper as Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been left out of the 18-member squad.
The biggest concern for the Kolkata outfit will be the lack of match practice as they have played only two Calcutta league matches against local minnows in the run-up to their most important fixture after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Cup final in 2003.
Falopa went as far as to say, “Being a foreigner doesn’t necessarily mean that he is guaranteed a place in the team. Every aspect has to be considered,” referring to the volatility he faces in choosing his match-day squad. He acceded to popular belief that the East Bengal team needs to improve their performances if they want to get over the opponents.
Semen Padang are well ahead of their competitors in the IPL and are now enjoying an eight-point lead with a game in hand despite having drawn 2-2 over the weekend against Persijap.
They are known for their beautiful passing football, relying on the creativity of their Argentine play-maker Esteben Vizcarra and the South Korean defensive midfielder Yoo Hyun-Goo. David Pagbe, the Cameroon international will bear the responsibility of parrying the attacks carried out by the East Bengal strikers.
The biggest star of the side is the Liberian goal-machine Edward Wilson Junior, who has already scored 9 goals in the tournament. Skipper Fahrudin Mustafic is set to make his return for the tie after serving his suspension. Ismadi Mukhtar will however miss the match due to the midfielder being involved in a road accident.
It remains to be seen how East Bengal, who conceded the least number of goals in the I-League last season and boasts of a strong defense consisting of Naoba Singh, Uga Okpara, Arnab Mondal and Soumik Dey deals with the talismanic striker, who attracted a lot of attention from the Indian media a few months ago over his rumoured move to Mohun Bagan.
Jafri Sastrak, the coach of the Indonesian side, knows with all of the resources at his disposal and a quantum of game time they have had this season, his side look the better horses to run the full distance.
What is interesting to know is that, East Bengal have recorded 24 wins which is the highest by any Indian team in Asian Club Competitions. East Bengal had not won any matches in the last two AFC Cup campaigns, but have re-written their fate to go unbeaten till now in the current edition. A good record Falopa could extend, if not create a psychological impact with.
This is Semen Padang’s first participation in the AFC Cup after winning the IPL last term. Their greatest result in a continental competition was reaching the Quarter Finals of the 1993-94 Asian Cup Winners Cup.
A tie where two of the competing teams have a point to prove, can only be bedrock for an even spicier game to follow. East Bengal fans will be roaring their side on, knowing fully well that any home advantage is worth a thousand suns. Expect a humdinger.
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