East Bengal had come agonisingly close to clinch the I-League title last season but lost out to Chennai City FC who had a point more than the Red and Golds. In fact, the league was lost when Chennai managed to do the double over the Kolkata giants. On the final day of the season, eventhough East Bengal defeated Gokulam Kerala, Chennai City too managed to eke out a win over Minerva Punjab and win their first ever league championship.
It has been one and a half-decade since the Red and Golds last won the league title. Last season was the closest they came to the trophy after 2004-05 season when we had witnessed a similar final day battle between East Bengal, Sporting Clube de Goa and eventual champions Dempo SC.
East Bengal have always been one of the title contenders however, they somehow manage to miss the chance to go over the line.
With the arrival of a new investor (Quess Corp) and a new high profile coach in Alejandro Menendez, it was expected that the wait would finally end. Unfortunately, the team once again failed but not before they put up a fight.
The fans continued to show immense faith in Menendez and believed that the former Real Madrid Castilla manager would change their fortunes in the second season. Menendez was also given a free hand in the team-building process, something which is a rare occurence in Kolkata football.
East Bengal took part in two tournaments during the pre-season, the prestigious Durand Cup and the Calcutta Football League (CFL). The coach had made it clear that he would treat the tournaments as mere pre-season competitions and would experiment with the line-up in order to prepare the team for the I-League.
The Red and Golds lost in the semifinal of the Durand Cup and finished third in the CFL. The fans remained patient throughout hoping that the team would do wonders in the I-League.
The Kolkata outfit did not have the best of starts to their I-League campaign as they managed hard-fought draws in their first two matches against Real Kashmir (home) and Punjab FC (away).
They came back strongly against NEROCA though in their third game as they registered a thumping 4-1 win in Manipur but once again struggled at home against a weak TRAU FC side.
TRAU had come into the match against East Bengal on the back of a humiliating 4-0 defeat at the hands of Mohun Bagan and were simply no match for Menendez’s East Bengal on paper. But East Bengal had to wait till the very end to pick up a narrow 2-1 win over the debutants.
Against Churchill Brothers in their last match, East Bengal lost 1-0 with a late goal by former player Willis Plaza. It must be mentioned that they had a couple of chances which should have been buried but for some poor finishing in front of the goal.
What East Bengal is lacking is a poacher upfront. They had signed Spanish striker Marcos de la Espada Jimenez on the manager’s recommendation in the summer. While Marcos has netted thrice in five matches, he has missed several opportunities. But the Spanish tactician believes that East Bengal have a better squad than last season.
"I think we have a better squad than last season. The team-building process has been very satisfying. We are still trying to fix some issues. If we can fix those then it will be a very big season. We have played some games in the pre-season. We played some strong teams from ISL as well. The results have been good. The feeling has been even better. I think we are a strong team. And at the end of the season, I expect we will be fighting for the title," commented the coach before taking on NEROCA.
Whereas after the match, he acknowledged that Marcos is neither a very fast player nor someone who is pleasing to the eye. However, he remains confident that the striker can certainly do the job for the Red and Golds in the I-League.
“Marcos is not very fast but he has a special ability that is very good for the I-League. He is very good in duels. He coordinates well with the other attacking players like Jaime (Santos) or Juan Mera. He shields the centre-backs very well and creates space for other attacking players. He is not a player who is spectacular to watch but he is a very good number nine."
So far Marcos’ ‘abilities’ are from being effective. Menendez needs to realise the pressure of managing a club from Kolkata and that his experiments will not be backed for long by a bunch of fans who have patiently waited for the I-League title for 15 years. Despite all the preparations, East Bengal have failed to win 50 per cent of their matches in the I-League in the current campaign. In fact, their performances have also been lacklustre.
If they fail to win the I-League, the same fans who had made Menendez the apple of their eyes will soon turn against him. Menendez has to let the results do the talking.