East Bengal and NEROCA FC square off at the Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata on Thursday, knowing that even a victory in this heavyweight clash may not be enough to secure the title. Yet such has been the nature of the I-League this season that a win could just eventually prove to be enough.
Form, pedigree, individual talent and home advantage have all gone for a toss at different occasions in the I-League, and those making any kind of predictions ahead of the last round of games may nominate themselves for bravery awards.
So on the final day where any one of the top-four teams - Minerva Punjab, NEROCA, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal - can be crowned champions, East Bengal and NEROCA could have hardly asked for tougher opponents.
The two teams might be a mismatch in terms of pedigree and history, but there has been little to choose between them as they have impressed in patches throughout the season. On the points table, one point and Mohun Bagan divide the two teams, to be precise.
Like the previous encounter between East Bengal and NEROCA in Imphal that ended in a draw, both managers would could have been happy with a point in their final match of the season had it not been for Minerva Punjab sitting on the cusp of glory.
A share of spoils would end the title challenge for either teams, so both sides will have to dump the safety-first approach and go all out for a win. This scenario may turn the game into a spectacle. However, even if the managers and the players give it their all physically and mentally to outdo the other, there is a possibility that they are not rewarded for it if Minerva do their job and secure a win.
But having come so far, giving up would be resigning to the fate. Instead both teams will try to push their fates to the limit. And the only way of doing so is by claiming three important points.
East Bengal and NEROCA FC will clash in Kolkata knowing even a win may not be enough to secure the I-League title. Image Courtesy: Kaushal Shukla/Firstpost
"There won't be any special preparations for this game. But as I said it is going to be a very tough game for us. Defensively they are very strong. We need to finish well on Thursday against NEROCA as we can't afford to waste chances as we have in the past," East Bengal coach Khalid Jamil said acknowledging the need for his team, especially the forwards, to be on top of their game against a team not known to give many chances away.
The Manipur outfit is the best defensive side in the division having conceded just 12 goals. But the greater cause for concern for Jamil will be NEROCA's fine away record. The men in orange have gained 17 points from their travels and have recorded five wins in the process. They have kept six clean sheets on the road and are unbeaten in seven away fixtures. Their only defeat came in their season opener away to Minerva. Since that point, Gift Raikhan's men have let in just one goal on the road.
"At home we have got a lot of pressure on us. The Manipur crowd is very passionate and they expect a lot from us. No matter which opponent we are facing, they expect us to win. Away from home the scenario is quite different. This is the first time we are playing in the competition, so players look forward to playing big teams in their famous stadiums. I think that gets the best out of our players away from home," coach Raikhan explained.
However, the NEROCA coach hinted that his team, despite their superior position in the table and the strong away record, will pay East Bengal due respect in Thursday's encounter. "My main objective is to not concede. Then we will take it from there," Raikhan said.
"We all know how good East Bengal are. There are four doors through which they attack. I won't mention them, but I would certainly like to keep them closed," he added.
Raikhan was referring to East Bengal's attacking quartet of Dudu Omagbemi, Ansumana Kromah, Mahmoud Amnah and Katsumi Yusa. Together, the quartet creates lot of chances, and with the quality that East Bengal possess all over the pitch, the chances are bound to be converted into goals.
The Red and Golds are the league's most potent attack with 32 goals. In their last game at home, they pumped seven goals past Chennai City, who beat leaders Minerva Punjab two days later.
The size and quality of the pitch at the Salt Lake stadium will also suit East Bengal and they will be keen to continue their good record at home. In contrast to NEROCA's success on the road, East Bengal have relied on home form to secure the points. They have the division's best home record with their only defeat in Kolkata coming in the derby against Mohun Bagan.
So with the strongest attack taking on the meanest defence, and with East Bengal's home comfort coming up against NEROCA's away exploits, something will have to give on Thursday. This is where the experienced players in both teams could prove to be decisive.
Jamil revealed that he would be able to welcome back Eduardo Ferreira and Arnba Mondal to the side and also hinted at making at least two to three changes to the side that played against Shillong Lajong. The experienced duo of Ferreira and Mondal could slot in at the heart of the East Bengal defence.
The 40-year-old also suggested that he could tinker with his midfield making Kromah, who was off colour in the previous game, vulnerable to the axe.
However, their most lethal weapon will be striker Dudu, who has scored six goals in the last two games. Possessing the physicality and presence inside the box, the Nigerian may be the ace in Jamil's pack for this crucial encounter.
Raikhan, on the other hand, will be looking at captain and goalkeeper Lalit Thapa, and veterans like Gouramangi Singh, Subash Singh, Naoba Singh to provide calm in a game that is certain to test the players' nerves.
With both teams expected to line-up in flexible 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system, it could come down to who wants it more.
On paper, East Bengal may appear as clear favourites, but NEROCA have earned the right to be treated at par with the Red and Golds.
East Bengal-NEROCA is undoubtedly the clash of the final round, but Minerva Punjab may steal its thunder. However, for the two teams chasing the league leaders, everything will rest on the hope that there will be light at the end of the tunnel.