The I-League is the only domestic tournament that the Kolkata club have regularly participated in but not won.
It’s now or never for East Bengal. If they do not win their derby match against Mohun Bagan on Sunday, their hopes of winning the coveted I-League title may fade away.
East Bengal have played an extra game and still trail surprise leaders Minerva Punjab FC by three points. With the I-League likely to be either terminated next season or merged with the Indian Super League, this is East Bengal’s last title opportunity.
In 10 editions of the I-League, East Bengal have finished in the top three on six occasions but the title has always eluded them. The I-League is the only domestic tournament that the famous Kolkata club have regularly participated in but not won. This will be a sad blot on the legacy of East Bengal, celebrating their centenary in 2019-2020.
A Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal match always arouses intense passion. But this time the burden of expectations is even more. Khalid Jamil’s team knows that a loss can be fatal to their title aspirations. Mohun Bagan will also hope to revive their faltering season by edging their arch-rivals. There is added interest as both teams will field their newly acquired strikers. So for the fans it promises to be a match to remember.
East Bengal have axed the profligate, Charles D’Souza (Brazil) and replaced him with veteran Nigerian striker Dudu Omagbemi. Three seasons ago, Dudu played for East Bengal and scored 21 goals in the season, despite the club not having good midfielders. East Bengal’s ardent fans are hoping that Dudu can deliver this time as in Yusa Katsumi and Mahmoud Al Amna, they have the best distributors of the ball in the I-League.
Similarly Mohun Bagan released Ghanefo Kromah and have replaced him with exciting Lebanese striker Akram Moghrabi. In the 6th I-League, Moghrabi helped Churchill Brothers emerge champions and scored nine goals in 18 matches before leaving.
The famous Kolkata clubs despite having the biggest budgets are not dominating the I-League as expected because of their flawed recruitment policies. Both have been misled by agents who send old CVs and videos of foreign players. This is unlike the past when both clubs got outstanding foreign recruits like Jose Ramirez Baretto and Igor Skhivrin (Mohun Bagan) and Jackson Agyapong and Suley Mussah (East Bengal).
History has an uncanny way of repeating itself. Last year in the 10th Hero I League East Bengal were leading with 19 points from seven matches that included six victories on the trot. But then they slumped. East Bengal drew with Mohun Bagan and Shillong Lajong and lost to Aizawl FC, Churchill Brothers and Chennai City FC to finish third.
Similarly in the current I-League, East Bengal were on a winning streak till the eighth round of matches. Since then they have drawn with both Churchill Brothers and Aizawl FC and a loss to Bagan could halt their title aspirations. A thrilling finish to the 11th I-League is expected as Minerva FC, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Neroca FC and Aizawl FC are all in the fray for the title.