The first Kolkata Derby of 2018 is only a day away and unlike the other I-League matches, this match is never about only clinching three points as the final whistle is blown. The much anticipated second leg of the East Bengal vs. Mohun Bagan match is on Sunday and while every derby is treated like a matter of life and death, or as Shankly would say, far more than that, this time the tension is asymmetrical for the two massive fan bases.
This Sunday, when the red and gold brigade take on their arch-rivals, clad in green and maroon, they are fighting not just to avenge the result of their last encounter but also to come a step closer to being crowned champion of the latest edition of the I-League. On the other hand, Mohun Bagan have very little to lose from this match and will march on to the Salt Lake Stadium without the pressure of a title worth missing out on.
For East Bengal, tasting the joy of winning the national league was almost a decade and a half ago; back when Christiano Junior was alive and kicking. Since then there have been too many times that East Bengal have come much too close to the finishing line and somehow have not quite crossed it in time. However should this derby go in favour of East Bengal, the path ahead looks reasonably straight and beating Minerva Punjab to go to the top of the table seems to be far from impossible.
Right now East Bengal have 7 matches in hand with 19 points on the board, excluding Sunday's derby. Should East Bengal emerge victorious with 3 points in their bag, they equal Minerva's 22 points, albeit having played an extra match. However, if the derby hurdle is passed tomorrow, the remaining matches should pose little trouble for the Khalid Jamil side, unless things go terribly wrong.
For East Bengal's remaining matches are at home which, given the current side, should not result unfavourably. Yusa Katsumi has finally found his footing under the East Bengal banner and along with Amna and now with the arrival of Dudu, have successfully carried the club through in the tricky matches. Ironically, the hiccups came for East Bengal from the matches which ought to have been smooth sailing.
There is also to consider the fact that Sony Norde is reportedly leaving Mohun Bagan after the derby on Sunday on the grounds of a knee surgery. Being the go-getter that Khalid Jamil is, the former Aizawl coach will surely take advantage of an allegedly injured Norde, who is nothing short of the oil that ensures the smooth functioning of the Mohun Bagan machinery.
Khalid Jamil, knowing what is at stake, will surely have a plan or two up his sleeve to factor that in. With an on song team and a relatively smooth path ahead, the biggest test that Jamil has to pass tomorrow is that of the Kolkata Derby to rectify the December wrongs. Coming back to East Bengal's chances of winning the title, the biggest obstacle on the way to victory is that of Minerva itself. Even if East Bengal drop points against the table toppers, ideally Khalid Jamil should be looking to draw at least 10 points from his four home matches.
That, coupled with a win on Sunday, would give East Bengal a total score of 32 points with three away matches still left in hand. Again, the obstacle that one expects on the away front is from Minerva. For East Bengal optimists, the three away matches ideally should not pose too much of a threat either since two of the three clubs are Gokulam and Shillong Lajong. Gokulam are the bottom of the table and acing the match ought to be the normal course of the day unless East Bengal go back to the familiar trend of slipping up right in the face of victory.
The other team in concern is Shillong Lajong, currently placed at number four on the table. While Shillong Lajong have proved to be a bit of a worry in the past, given the current conditions, things should not go too wrong for East Bengal. In the first leg, Shillong lost to East Bengal in a rather dismal way conceding a 5-1 loss. The Shillong Lajong defence does not look like an unfathomable wall as has been seen in the previous match and it is not unrealistic to predict an East Bengal victory. It is only against Minerva that East Bengal may once again probably lose out on securing the vital three points.
However, even if East Bengal do drop a point and play a thoroughly defensive game with Minerva and come home with a draw, two wins from Gokulam and Lajong and a draw from Minerva bring up nine points. This brings up East Bengal's total up to 39, which can be considered the magic figure if one looks at the past few years. However, this hypothetical calculation will hold any value only and only if East Bengal secure a win first against Mohun Bagan tomorrow and then follow it up with a home win against Minerva.
It has been fourteen years since the Calcutta Giant has brought home the league and the pressure to bring it back to the red and gold dressing room has rocketed since 2015 after Mohun Bagan successfully did. The kind of diatribe and pressure that ensues when it comes to the competition and rivalry of these two teams is known to anyone who has the faintest idea about Indian football.
The number of times that East Bengal have come oh so close to winning and yet not managing to has been more than what an East Bengal fan could care for. But this year, the chances are far too close, and with two sudden stumbles, the frustration is high among fans. This derby could possibly decide the fate of Khalid Jamil at the club who unfortunately has been under immense pressure recently. Khalid Jamil is the Aizawl FC hero who carried the team to win their first I league title in the last season.
The sense of betrayal that ran through the Aizawl supporters was far from subtle when the team played East Bengal last week. The posters calling him out for sabotaging Aizawl were, well, harsh and this derby could do a lot to lift his morale. Should Jamil actually succeed in using the derby as a pedestal to bringing the final glory to East Bengal, he will boast of winning two I-leagues for two different clubs back to back.
It will be interesting to note if Jamil's innate trust in Plaza will become a key factor for East Bengal or not. With East Bengal breathing on Minerva's neck and Mohun Bagan aiming to at least stay a winner in the city, if not the country, there is a whole lot more to lose than three points when the final whistle is blown on Sunday.