With the preparations for the 2014/15 campaign well and truly underway, all the I-League clubs are busy building a solid squad, and East Bengal are no exception. The pain of losing the race for the I-League crown (yet again) still being fresh in their memories, the Red and Gold brigade are desperate to go one step better this term. The Kolkata giants, who finished runners-up in the I-League last season, the third time in four years, have already made a few changes to their squad for the upcoming campaign, but have managed to keep the nucleus of the team intact. Mehtab Hossain, Arnab Mondal, Raju Gaikwad, Cavin Lobo, Lalrindika Ralte, Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Abhijit Mondal and Joaquim Abranches amongst others have been retained by East Bengal, while Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Naoba Singh, Edeh Chidi, James Moga and Reisangmi Vashum are the big names to leave the club. On the other hand, some of the players roped in by Armando Colaco’s side are Ranty Martins, Deepak Mondal, Mohammed Rafique, Anthony Soren and Safar Sardar.
Presently, Martins is only the foreigner in East Bengal’s ranks, while the club are in an advanced stage to sign Leo Bertos, meaning the Kolkata outfit have to sign two more foreign players. However, apart from the two blank foreigners spot, Colaco has more or less assembled the Indian contingent of players. So, let us look into how East Bengal’s squad have panned out position-wise and which foreigners the club should target to make the squad strong enough to win the elusive I-League title.
Goalkeepers – Abhijit Mondal, Abhra Mondal, Louis Barreto, Dibyendu Sarkar and Sandip Kumar Pal.
Goalkeeping has been a problematic area for East Bengal for the past few seasons and it is not over-exaggerating to say that the blunders between the posts have cost the Red and Gold at least two I-League titles in the past four seasons. Sandhu, who was the main culprit in those occasions, have been shown the door by the club at the start of the season. There is no denying the fact that the lanky youngster is a talented custodian, but some of his errors, most notably the goal he gifted Mohun Bagan in the 1-1 draw in the I-League second leg of the Kolkata derby last term, will come back to haunt the East Bengal supporters for years to come. But Sandhu’s replacement, Barreto, is not a top-notch goalkeeper. And the club should have opted to sign a more “dependable” shot-stopper like Karanjit Singh (Salgaocar) or Subhasish Roy Chowdhury (Dempo), who have excellent track records with their respective clubs. While Dibyendu Sarkar and Sandip Kumar Pal will serve as back-up goalkeepers, the main onus will be on Abhijit, Abhra and Barreto. Abhijit, 36, is experienced, but age and reflex is not on his side and Abhra has never been the same since suffering the horrifying knee injury two years ago. On the other hand, Barreto is prone to committing mistakes, so it remains to be seen how East Bengal fare in the goalkeeping department in the upcoming campaign.
Potential Foreigner – No One
Although it will not be the first time if East Bengal rope in a foreign goalkeeper, it is safe to rule out that possibility as the club are looking to strengthen their defence, midfield and forward line with the three remaining slots for foreign players.
Defenders – Saumik Dey, Safar Sardar, Robert Lalthalmuana, Abhishek Das, Dipak Mondal, R.Dhanarajan, Souvik Bal, Amit Chakrabarty, Raju Gaikwad, Arnab Mondal, Gurwinder Singh (vice-vaptain), Wasim Akram Mollick and Baidyanath Das.
East Bengal boast of a solid defense barring the right-back spot. While Dey and Robert will fight it out to become the club’s number one choice in left-back, the opposite end looks susceptible with Mondal and Das being the preferred right-backs. Although Mondal enjoyed a good season in United Sports’ colors last term, the 34-year-old is no spring chicken and may find it hard to get back into position once he forays forward. Das, on the other hand lacks experience and could be in trouble against tricky and nippy attackers. Dhanarajan, the club’s summer signing from Mohammedan Sporting, could be drafted in as a right-back, although, the Keralite is more accustomed to playing in the other full-back role. The centre-back spots looks well covered with Arnab, Gaikwad and Gurwinder, who all are proven and tested players in that position. The heart of the defense is likely to be strengthened more with the signing of a foreign player.
Potential Foreigner – Bello Razaq
With East Bengal yet to decide on the future of Uga Okpara at the club, Bello Razaq could prove to be the ideal replacement for his Nigerian compatriot. Okpara, is expected to be fit by the end of this year after picking up a serious leg injury last season. However, the Kolkata club may not risk signing the 31-year-old, who has been a pillar of strength in the Red and Gold defence for the past four-and-a-half years, in fear of recurrence of the injury. East Bengal could instead turn to Razaq, who had a stellar season for United Sports last term. And with United Sports out of the I-League this season, East Bengal will not find it hard to sign the 29-year-old. Razaq is good in winning aerial challenges and is equally competent in marking players and thus could prove to be a shrewd buy for Colaco’s side.
Midfielders – Mehtab Hossein, Alvito D’Cunha, Lalrindika Ralte, Joaquim Abranches, Harmanjot Singh Khabra (captain), Dipankar Roy, Cavin Lobo, Subodh Kumar, S Malsawmtluanga, Kishan Bag, Anthony Soren, Prohlad Roy, Abinash Ruidas, Bibekananda Banerjee, Dipak Tirkey and Mohammed Rafique.
On paper it looks like the best midfield amongst the I-League clubs, but a closer look shows the lack of proper wingers. Malsawmtluanga and Soren are the out-and-out wingers, but none of them have the ability to carry a team for the entire length of a campaign. Abranches and Rafique are also likely to be employed as wingers by Colaco this term, but the pair like to play as secondary strikers than on the flanks. Ralte, who has been a revelation last year, has the tendency to drift infield when deployed out wide. But other than that, the midfield looks very compact with Mehtab and Khabra marshalling the area in front of the defenders and Lobo and Ralte feeding the strikers. The duo of Abranches and Rafique could also play in the middle of the park and are both known for their sprints and work-ethics. The signing of a versatile midfielder will go a long way in making this the best midfield of East Bengal in recent years.
Potential Foreigner – Penn Orji
There will be a host of East Bengal supporters, who will not agree with this choice, but Penn possesses the qualities to be the final piece in the Red and Gold’s midfield puzzle. The Nigerian left the club under unceremonious circumstances at the start of last season, but it proved to be a bad move for Penn. The 23-year-old was a raw talent when he first came to India to play for JCT in 2009. But he became one of the finest foreign recruits for East Benagal when they signed him the following year. Penn flourished and blossomed under Trevor James Morgan at the club and inadvertently his departure coincided with that of the former Hull City development coach. The midfielder, who can operate both on the flanks and in the middle, has excellent ball control and speed. But sadly, he failed to match up to the expectations at Mohammedan Sporting, and a return to his former stomping ground could be the impetus he needs to take his game to the next level.
Strikers – Baljit Sahni, Nilendra Dewan, Jiten Murmu, Manas Sarkar, Baldeep Singh and Ranti Martins.
To be honest, apart from the mercurial Ranti Martins, East Bengal’s attack look a bit thin. Barring the former Dempo and United Sports player, none of the strikers are worthy of playing day in day out for a club who will be challenging for the championship title; they are at best good as squad players. Martins is surely a class apart from the rest of the club’s forwards and East Bengal will be looking to bolster their squad with another proven goalscorer to partner the Nigerian upfront, which will surely enhance their chance of winning the I-League.
Potential Foreigner – Dudu Omagbemi
The 29-year-old, who returned to ply his trade in India with Salgaocar for the latter part of the 2013/14 campaign, could prove to be the perfect foil for Martins upfront. Dudu has tasted success in India and could be the proven goalscorer East Bengal are looking for. In addition, his experience of playing in the UEFA Champions League with Hungarian club Debreceni VSC, qualifies him as a marquee player, so East Bengal will not have to go searching for another marquee signing if things does not work out with Bertos, who is set to join the club. And Dudu’s pairing with Martins upfront is surely going to give the rival teams’ defenders nightmares. Dudu has previously proven that he is accustomed to playing with another striker during his stint at Sporting Clube de Goa, where he played alongside Chidi. And his five goals in 10 games for Salgaocar last season showed his hunger and proficiency in front of goal.