East Bengal will be favourites when they take on under-fire Mohun Bagan in the return I-League Kolkata derby at the Vivekananda Yuvabharati Krirangan here on Sunday.
Mohun Bagan on Friday received a body blow when star Haitian forward Sony Norde had to be released due to sustained period of injury.
It has been learnt that Norde will leave for Argentina where he will get treated. The Mohun Bagan skipper got injured in his right knee against Churchill Brothers and had to be stretchered off the field. He has featured only once since then which was against Neroca on December 19.
The Red and Golds suffered a slender 1-0 defeat the last time these two sides met this 2017-18 season.
Post that, East Bengal have remained unbeaten, notching five wins and three draws, to be ranked second on the table with nineteen points in their kitty.
“Last match we lost (against Mohun Bagan), we didn’t play good. This time we have to prepare well and not take them lightly. Like any other match, we have to play well and take positive points. They have good and experienced players,” said coach Khalid Jamil in the official pre-match press conference.
The I-League winning coach chose not to ponder upon the absence of Norde but praised the new signing Akram Moghrabi from the opposing camp.
“Football is about eleven players on the pitch. I saw Akram two-three years ago and he is a good player. We don’t have any special plans for him.
However, we might start with two strikers ourselves,” he said, hinting their new forward Dudu Omagbemi or out of favour Willis Plaza could feature alongside Jobby Justin in attack.
Jamil’s counterpart Shankarlal Chakraborty praised the former Aizawl FC man in high regard along with his current Kingfisher East Bengal team.
“East Bengal are a team ahead in all facets. After losing to us, they are unbeaten. Their coach Khalid Jamil is way more experienced than me and had been the in the Indian football scene for more than a decade. He is a title-winning coach. They are playing good football, that is why they are ahead of us and that reflects on the table”, he conceded.
Former assistant to Sanjoy Sen, who resigned midway the season, Sankarlal took over as the full-time head coach and has had a win and a loss in the two matches under his belt so far.
The champions from three seasons ago, however, remain in sixth place with thirteen points but have played a game less than East Bengal.
“I enjoy the challenge. It is exciting to work under these circumstances. The challenge will be to return to winning ways. There is a chance that Sony (Norde) might play, but if he doesn’t we move forward with some other player in our plans”, he added.
Eze Kingsley Obumneme, who scored the only goal in the last match said, “Scoring was a good thing. That is gone. Looking forward. Getting ready for the derby. I believe in my coach. It is not about individual players. We encourage each other to try to score more goals in training.”
Shilton Paul looks likely to miss the match owing to a stomach bug.
Yuta Kinowaki has not practised. Eduardo Ferreira and Katsumi Yusa face their former side with both in inspirational form for East Bengal of late.
However, the focus will be on the derby debutants of Mohun Bagan — Cameron Watson and Moghrabi — both tried and tested players in the Hero I-League in the past.
It will be the 321st meeting between the sides in their history in all competitions.
In 21 matches in the I-League era, the Red and Golds have won five times while the Mariners have been victorious eight times, with eight draws played. However, in the past five meetings at the national level, it has been all Mohun Bagan with three wins and two draws to their name.
A win for East Bengal will return both pride and the opportunity to stay afloat in the title race but the Mariners will be licking their lips to do the double this season over their near century-old rivals.