SC East Bengal might have sneaked into the Indian Super League, but there's a lot to work on, especially with the lack of proper pre-season, the form of Indian players and a race against time. They are yet to score their first goal this season, having lost both their matches so far.
One half of Kolkata was elated with the prospect of watching their team compete in the top-flight aka the Indian Super League, while the other half was still kept in the dark over their future. It would have been an uncanny hit to their pride if East Bengal failed to make an appearance, with their archrivals’ taunts giving them nightmares of years to come. The solution - rope in an investor and sneak into the ISL, even though the bidding process for new teams was stalled months ago.
But who cares, it’s "the" historic club from Kolkata - the rules can always be tweaked for rare cases, especially with them celebrating their 100th anniversary. Busy meetings with Chief Minister of West Bengal, with aid from Bengal’s favourite son - Sourav Ganguly (also a stakeholder at ATK-Mohun Bagan) - their 11th-hour entry was inevitable. Even though the millions of fanatics breathed a sigh of relief, they were aware that the job was half done.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were heavyweights in the I-League, with the former even claiming their second title last season. But, the monumental difference in the quality of football between the Indian Super League and the I-League has been well documented in the past. So, both the clubs were wading through unknown territories with fierce predators on the hunt.
Mohun Bagan took the safer route, by merging with ATK (the defending ISL champions) - inheriting a top-quality squad alongside a healthy bank account. But, East Bengal, even though they solved their monetary problems, were now staring at a bigger obstacle - assembling a suitable squad with limited time. Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler was appointed just a month before their debut in the ISL as their head coach.
ISL clubs usually fled abroad for pre-seasons in anticipation to avail better facilities, but with the pandemic situation in place, they were confined to domestic territories. The transfer window was busy nevertheless, with numerous swaps and fresh faces witnessed throughout. East Bengal, on the other hand, had no part to play back then, with them still unsure of their participation, while the others had already started making preparations for the mega event. But, by the time they did get the clearance, the ISL was knocking at the door. SC East Bengal - as the name stands after their association with Shree Cements - were in a race against time to fill the roster before the clock struck 12. Even if their buys were smart, the unit required adequate time to function properly, which has not been made available and the result is quite visible after just a couple of games.
Incidentally, they had to face ATK-Mohun Bagan in their first match, but of-course not in Kolkata, with the entire season to be played in a centralised venue - Goa, inside a bio-bubble. The ‘Kolkata Derby’ has been an evenly fought battle in general, with the best team on a particular day earning the bragging rights. Even though Robbie Fowler’s boys showed sparks of brilliance in the first half, they were tactically outclassed as the game turned old gradually.
It was Anthony Pilkington who showed some promise, stitching up a few passes and keeping the distribution channel flowing, but only to see the strikers make a meal out of it in the end. On the flip side, ATK-Mohun Bagan with their tried and tested players absorbed the attacks from the other side, identified suitable loopholes and scored a couple of goals to walk away with three points from the fixture.
If the ‘it was the first match of the season’ was the excuse in the opening tie, the ‘red and gold’ brigade got a reality check against Mumbai City FC in the following game. Undoubtedly, the best side on paper, Sergio Lobera’s men humbled the Kolkata giants by handing them a 3-0 defeat, and it could have been even more. It was not about the margin, but the way SC East Bengal were chasing the game which was a sorry sight for the coach as well as their followers.
They lacked rhythm, there was a serious lack of communication between the players and they lost possession of the ball cheaply. Their skipper was out of action after suffering an injury in the early stages of the game, which also added to the debacle. Coach Robbie Fowler, who admitted that the players need some more time to gel, and then quickly turned the attention to the Indian players - stating that ‘most of them looked like they have never been coached before.’ Now, there's a bitter pill to swallow.
To be precise, Indian's cream of the crop are already employed by other franchises, with the rest not in the best of shape. In an attempt to fill in the remaining slots, SC East Bengal roped in local players who either returned from long-standing injuries or were past their prime. With less than a month left for the showdown, how can you expect them to function like a well-oiled machine? It’s too much of an ask.
Moreover, an absurd one too. Meanwhile, the pressure from the management and the fans doesn’t help at all. Balwant Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua, two of India’s top strikers in the past decade - looked hapless, while Mohammad Rafique - who scored the winner in the final of the 2014 ISL, couldn’t put up anything better than the rest. Narayan Das and Surchandra Singh had communication gaps written all over their face, losing possession cheaply, while the foreigners were trying to figure out how to build up the game and go for the kill.
There’s no one to blame, save the desire for forcing an entry to the Indian Super League - just to save their pride from taking a hit by not playing in a second-tier league. But, the way they are playing, can they really save themselves from the embarrassment? Wouldn’t it have been a wiser decision to organise themselves, build-up a team from scratch and then make their way into the top tier? But, the deed is done and there’s no looking back.
At the most, the team needs to pull-up their socks, make the most out of their resources and put up a spirited fight. Robbie Fowler, on the other hand, should gauge the situation on hand, work in tandem with the local stars, rather than judge them in limited time. More game time - the only solution to the problem. Moreover, with all the factors adding up, we should not expect too much from SC East Bengal this season.