Chasing their elusive dream of winning the coveted I-League title, East Bengal kick off their campaign against reigning champions Aizawl FC in a mouthwatering season-opener on Tuesday.
Revenge will be on East Bengal’s mind as Aizawl FC had shattered their title hopes in the return leg last season. I-League will return to the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium after 675 days and the home side would be hoping to stamp their authority.
The I-League trophy is something that is missing from East Bengal’s cabinet.
The red-and-gold think-tank has showed the desperation by roping in Khalid Jamil, who was instrumental in scripting Aizawl FC’s success story.
East Bengal have hired as many as four former Aizawl FC players — Lalramchullova, Laldanmawia Ralte, Brandon Vanlalremdika and Mahmoud Al Amna who will be seen in red and gold jerseys.
The home team is also bolstered by the signing of Japanese playmaker Yusa Katsumi from Mohun Bagan.
“I have got accustomed to East Bengal. It’s been a long time since I have left Aizawl,” Jamil said. Since Jamil took charge of the Red and Golds, they have won the Calcutta Football League and are eyeing the big one now.
In the previous season, both the teams faced off on the opening day with the spoils shared at the Barasat Stadium while the return leg was won by Aizawl FC.
“It is a big challenge. We need a positive start. We are going to play with a good team. Won’t be an easy match. Even playing at the Salt Lake Stadium will be a challenge,” the coach said.
India internationals Salam Ranjan Singh, Arnab Mondal and Mohammed Rafique will have the foreign contingent of Willis Plaza, Charles D’Souza and Bazzou Armand to rely upon.
Eduardo Ferreira and star playmaker Yusa jumped ships from cross-town rivals Mohun Bagan and the inclusion of Al Amna makes Kingfisher East Bengal’s midfield an envious one this season.
Mehtab Singh has recovered from fever and so has Laldanmawia Ralte, who picked up a knock the previous day.
Ferreira’s inclusion in the starting lineup is a touch and go case.
As for Aizawl, new Portuguese coach Paulo Menezes will have his task cut out and would look to build the team from scratch.
He joined the side in August and was partly involved in the local state competition, the Mizoram Premier League, having played their first leg of the semi-final last week.
“It’s a very good challenge facing East Bengal in the first game. All the teams want to beat the champions. We are ready to compete,” the Portuguese said.
“We are still a small team compared to the likes of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan even though we are champions.” Only skipper Alfred Jaryan continues with the side from the Mizo hills.
Former Minerva Punjab defender Kareem Omolaja joins the side and with the induction of Masih Saighani, Andrei Ionescu, Yugo Kobayashi and Leonce Dodoz, Aizawl FC have mustered up a strong foreign contingent.
Local favourite Shylo Malsawmtluanga (injured for the game) and David Lalrinmuana, both former East Bengal players will only make the familiarity factor between the two sides stronger.
Liandala Sena, Andrei Ionescu and Jonathan Lalrawngbawla are injured as well.
Captain Jaryan said: “East Bengal are the big guns in Indian football. Khalid Jamil is mighty experienced and has been on the circuit for many years. He knows how to get the best of all players. He will be a huge factor.”
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