The perennial bridesmaid of the I-League as the title continues to desert them. With fresh funds, a new manager, and astute signings, East Bengal looks better equipped to challenge for the crown.
However, they lost their grip on the Calcutta League earlier this year. The first I-League title might be a step too far for the Red and Gold.
Last season East Bengal finished an underwhelming fourth, one place behind Mohun Bagan on goal difference. Despite scoring the highest number of goals (32), the campaign was hampered by a high number of drawn matches.
The start of the new season has not been positive either. They managed to finish third in a two-horse race in the Calcutta Football League. It didn’t help they lost their grip on the local league after an eight-year dominance to their arch-rivals, Mohun Bagan.
The Red and Gold are yet to win an I-League title. The arrival of new investors in the shape of Quess Corporation could inject some fresh funds for one of the most celebrated teams in Indian football.
The club spent their pre-season at Malaysia and played a couple of matches against Liga Premier Clubs and a Super League club. They defeated UiTM FC 5-1, held Terengannu FC to a goalless draw, defeated Persatuan Bolasepak Polis Di-Raja Malaysia (PDRM FA) 6-2 and had a game with UKMFC washed out due to incessant rains.
Alejandro Menendez’s coaching experience has been mainly centered in his native Spain. He spent five years coaching the youth setup at Sporting Gijon and Real Madrid before managing reserve squads like with Celta B and Real Madrid Castilla. Interestingly, he replaced Julen Lopetegui for the Castilla job and was one of the assistants to Jose Mourinho.
After a brief stint as head coach of Celta in 2008, he went on to manage Racing Santander in Segunda Division.
Menendez left the comforts of Spain and joined Buriram United FC for the 2013/14 Thai Premier League season, where he won the domestic treble in his first season in charge. He caught the eyes of the Chinese League One side, Shaanxi Wuzhou. Unfortunately for him, due to bureaucratic problems, he had to terminate his stay in China. He returned to Spain to manage Celta B and Burgos CF before signing up for East Bengal.
The Spaniard has nurtured talents like Alvaro Morata, Dani Carvajal, Marcos Alonso, Nacho and Denis Cheryshev during his time at Real Madrid Castilla. Closer home, Bengaluru FC’s Juanan Gonzalez also played under Menendez at Castilla.
Players To Watch
Johnny Acosta: From the World Cup in June to the Kolkata Derby in September. It has been an eventful year for the Costa Rican international. The central defender will help organize the East Bengal backline and provide threats upfront during the set-piece routines.
Acosta admitted that he did not know much about Indian football, but he knew that East Bengal is a big team with a rich history.
He was welcomed to the chaos of India when his unveiling to the media was canceled as the club had forgotten to provide a translator. They did try to use Google Translate, but it did not help as the media center had poor reception.
Mahmoud Amnah: The standout player from Aizawl FC’s 2016/17 title-winning team joined East Bengal the following season. Mahmoud could again be the standout player under the new manager as he can offer plenty to his forwards.
Aleppo might be far away for the Syrian, but he has made Kolkata his second home. Here is an excellent article on Mahmoud by Sharda Urga.
East Bengal starts their campaign in the eastern part of India. A trip to Imphal to face NEROCA (Oct. 27) is followed by another away assignment at Shillong Lajong (Nov. 1). They play their first home match against Chennai City (Nov. 13) before traveling to Mizoram to face Aizawl FC (Nov 24).
They have three home matches in a row: holders Minerva Punjab (Dec. 4), Gokulam FC (Dec. 8) and the big clash against Mohun Bagan (Dec. 16).
With little time to rest, they travel to Goa to face Churchill Brothers (Dec. 20) before heading back home to face newcomers Real Kashmir (Dec 28).
The fixtures in January has East Bengal playing closer home, barring one long distance journey. Away matches against Indian Arrows (Jan. 9) and Chennai City (Jan 14) is followed by a home match against Indian Arrows (Jan 18). Of course, there is the derby against Mohun Bagan on Jan. 27.
The remaining fixtures consist of four home games and two away trips to northern India. They host NEROCA (Feb.7), travel to Real Kashmir (Feb. 10), host Shillong Lajong (Feb. 14), Churchill Brothers (Feb. 17), and Aizawl (Feb. 21). The final match is away at Minerva Punjab on Mar. 3.
What to Expect
On paper, East Bengal has a strong squad, but Menendez has to get the balance right. The attacking trio of Enrique Esqueda, Jobby Justin, and Laldanmawia will cause problems for the oppositions.
Lalrindika Ralte and Mahmoud Amnah will provide the creativity in the midfield, while new recruit Kassim Aidara will shield the defense. Acosta will be paired with Borja Gomez in central defense while the Mizo full backs – Lalramchullova and Lalrozama Fanai will help stretch the opposition. Rakshit Dagar could be in goal.
The Red and Golds must improve on their away form to have any chance of a challenging for the title. Also, it might help if they can start beating their crosstown rivals – something they have failed to do so in two years.