Shorn of their full spread of foreigners, East Bengal will look to earn full points and start their bid for a long-awaited I-League title when they take on Aizawl FC at the Barasat Stadium here on Saturday.
Sans two of their foreign recruits defender Ivan Bukenya and forward Willis Plaza, the red and gold brigade, who have not laid hands on the national league since 2004 under coach Subhas Bhowmick, are expected to start with only Haitian Wedson Anselme in their first outing.
Due to lack of training time, both Bukenya and Plaza are expected to be cooling their heels for the first game.
East Bengal are still to sign their fourth foreigner in the Asian quota.
“They have had long flights with layovers at different countries. It’s not easy to judge on them just yet. Let’s see how they are on Monday and then take a call,” coach Trevor James Morgan said at the pre-match press conference at the club ground.
Subhashish Roy Chowdhury is expected to start under the bar with Gurwinder Singh and Anwar Ali playing as centre-backs.
First choice defender Arnab Mondal is nursing an injury while Bukenya needs time to take the field. While Narayan Das and Rahul Bheke are expected to man the full-back positions, skipper Mehtab Hossain and Rowlin Borges will in all likelihood be the two holding midfielders.
By the look of things, Wedson is likely to be drafted in the hole behind Mohammed Rafique who will play as a striker with Jackichand Singh and Abhinash Ruidas likely to be playing wide in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Under Morgan, East Bengal ended runners-up in both 2011 and 2012. The British coach vowed to do all in his powers to win the elusive crown this time.
“We were unfortunate in one of those seasons that we could not win the I-League. There were things that happened to us that we could do nothing about.
“I know this could be the last I-League season. I know the expectations of the fans are immense here as it always is.
“I would do everything in my power to win the I-League this time, and it’s not the I-League it’s every game that we play. It’s going to be a great achievement for the team and me personally. It’s not something I lose sleep over. I do wake up and think about it,” Morgan said.
East Bengal will play on artificial turf at the Barasat Stadium. Asked if that could be a problem especially in summer when the pitch could be injury prone, club captain Mehtab said, “It can be a problem. It’s not easy for the knee, ankle and groin. You need a lot of stamina. It’s not an artificial turf of such high standards so the leg gets stuck at times. You will see players injuring himself after two-three games,” the veteran midfielder said.
Coming to the visitors, the Mizoram outfit were relegated last term but were brought back owing to their stellar performance in the Federation Cup where they reached the summit and the Goan clubs –Dempo, Sporting Clube de Goa and Salgaocar pulling the plug on their first team operations.
Coached by Khalid Jamil whose teams are known to take the fight to the opposition as they have done a lot against East Bengal, the highlanders have Liberian striker Alfred Jaryan, who turned out for Jamil’s Mumbai FC in 2013-14 and played for Aizawl last year.
Nigerian Eze Kingsley and Ivory Coast’s Kamo Bayi are the other foreign players. The likes of Jayesh Rane and Ashutosh Mehta have followed former Mumbai coach Jamil to Aizawl and have experience on their side.
“We will have to be alert defensively against a side like East Bengal. We all know what they can do,” Jamil said.
In the last two meetings, East Bengal have had the last laugh on both occasions.
The match is going to be the curtain raiser of Hero I-League 2016-17, kicking off at 4:30 PM tomorrow (January 7, 2017). The encounter will be aired live on Ten 2.