Even before Kingfisher East Bengal touched down in Mumbai to launch their campaign for the 11th edition of the ONGC National Football League, circumstances forced the team management to shift their focus from actual training to logistic problems.
It took just a few hours for the experienced officials to get things on track. But it is the bigger issue — lack of form and a potent strike force - that every member of the red and gold brigade is hoping to resolve before they take on Air India in their opening encounter at the Cooperage on Sunday.The three-time champions have had a torrid time in the run up to the NFL, losing in the preliminary rounds of the Durand Cup
, IFA Shield and Federation Cup, and failing to score a single goal against quality opponents.
Their forward line has been virtually non-existent with none of the five foreigners they tried in these tournaments making an impression. The injury to Ashim Biswas has compounded the problems for their Brazilian coach Carlos Roberto Pereira as he has been left with no option but to start with untested Kenyan Bonface Ambani, along with Arata Izuki, the only player under the Person of Indian Origin category in the NFL, upfront.
“Ambani has had just six training sessions with us. I hardly got time to work on him but I have no other option,” said Carlos after the team’s practice session at the Cooperage on Saturday. Injuries to Brazilian defender Cristiano Hilario and Anupam Sarkar have further weakened the side but both the coach and skipper Alvito D’Cunha are confident of a turn around. “This is a new tournament. We don’t want to dwell on what happened in the past and want to make a winning start here,” D’Cunha said.
Air India have also had an indifferent run up to the NFL, but that does not make it any easier for East Bengal, playing against an opponent capable of raising their game several notches while playing at home. In fact, the Mumbai outfit managed to hold the Kolkata giants for a draw in both their NFL matches last year and, had luck been on their side, a win was very much possible in the home leg.
The Bimal Ghosh-coached side may not have star players in its line up but they know the Cooperage ground like the back of their hand, and can use the relatively small size of the ground very effectively for their counter attacking style.
Ghosh made it clear that the team would go for three full points against East Bengal. “We have got three home games first up,” he said. “And we have to try and win all of them to ensure we don’t come under pressure (of relegation) later.”