Pride will be at stake in I- League’s first derby this season when bitter foes East Bengal and Mohun Bagan clash in front of a sellout crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata on Saturday.
The arch-rivals have met once earlier this season, in a Kolkata League match, when East Bengal demolished Mohun Bagan 4-0 to lift a sixth successive, and a record 37 overall title.
But much water has flowed under the Howrah bridge since the two met back in September and East Bengal, for a change, will start as underdogs against Mohun Bagan, the defending champions who are on a roll with two wins on the trot. They lead the standings and ‘revenge’ is the buzzword for them, now.
Arrival of Haitian forward Sony Norde, who was instrumental in their maiden I-League triumph last season, just ahead of the big match adds sting to their already potent strike force that has scored seven goals from two matches.
Balwant Singh, who has scored opening goals in two matches, is a doubtful starter owing to a groin injury. Star Indian forward Jeje Lalpekhula may start alongside Cornell Glen, while Katsumi Yusa and Sony Norde will add value from behind as Sanjoy Sen may go with 4-4-2 formation.
“Whatever the football pundits say, this match is always a 50-50 battle. I shall always respect East Bengal and holding the nerves will be the key to success,” the Mohun Bagan coach said insisting to calm down the hype in the Maidan.
But the green and maroon fans are not ready to budge as all their hopes hinge on star player Norde, who is getting all the attention since his arrival in the wee hours of Monday.
“I will go for goal, let’s hope... However, even if I don’t get it, there are many other players in our team who can score,” he said in his message to the fans and added, “This team is a lot different compared to the one that played in the Kolkata League.”
The East Bengal camp is grappling with injuries while their ace South Korean forward Do Dong Hyun, who had struck a first-half brace in their local league rout, is not in his elements coming off a calf injury, and is still in search of his maiden I-League goal from two outings.
It will be a test of character for Do Dong as the occasion is apt to silence his critics at a time when the team is struggling with injuries to midfielder Sehnaj Singh, Cavin Lobo, Gurwinder Singh and Harmanjot Singh Khabra.
Further, East Bengal’s new recruit and French defender Bernard Mendy is virtually ruled out due to Visa issues.
“I don’t want to talk about a person who is unavailable. I will try to fight with my available resources,” East Bengal coach Biswajit Bhattacharya said.
The third round match tomorrow will once again be an away contest for East Bengal, who have been on the road in the first two matches.
“It’s just the beginning of the season and four points from two matches is not bad. There have been many positives for us. Bello (Rasaq) is coming back to his usual form, Ranti (Martins) has been in lethal form, Rehenesh (TP) has been stupendous under the bar.
“Players like Samad (Ali Mallick), (CS) Sabeeth, Khabra have shown their talent. Mehtab (Hossain) has been a leader in the midfield. But my best weapon has certainly been (Mohammad) Rafique. He is versatile, understands the game really well and can be a game-changer... He will be my trump card,” he said.