Venue: Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, Kuwait City, Kuwait
Kickoff: Tuesday, October 1 2013, 22:00 IST (LIVE on ESPN)
Defending champions Kuwait SC are looking to become the second club after Jordan’s Al Faisaly to retain the AFC Cup and come into this two-legged semi-final as clear favourites. There are several reasons behind it. Historically they are one of the most successful teams in the competition’s history and have a near perfect record against Indian teams. There is a huge gulf in class between Kuwait and Indian football and Kuwait SC are the reigning champions of their domestic league too. On paper, this semi-final is bit of a mismatch because besides the several Kuwait internationals, Kuwait SC also have high quality foreigners including Tunisia’s all-time highest scorer Issam Jemaa, who has also played in France for Lens and Auxerre and the MVP of the 2012 edition, Brazilian Rogerinho. It won’t be wrong to say that Kuwait SC are possibly too good for the AFC Cup and instead should be locking horns with the best club teams of the continent in the Asian Champions League.
The mammoth 12-2 aggregate win over Maldives’ New Radiant in the quarter-finals was another reminder of their class and quality but unlike East Bengal, Kuwait SC haven’t been unbeatable in this season’s AFC Cup. They suffered back-to-back defeats in the group stage on matchdays five and six and needed a penalty shootout to beat Iraq’s Duhok at home in the round of 16 tie. So Kuwait can’t take this semi-final for granted even though their record at this stage of the competition reads: Played: 6; Won: 5; Drawn: 1. The Brigadiers have made a perfect start to their domestic campaign too having won their first four games including the 4-1 away win over Al Jahra on Friday. While East Bengal haven’t had much domestic action so far this season, Kuwait SC already look in good shape physically and Romanian coach Marin Ion has an embarrassment of riches in almost every department.
The biggest strength of Kuwait SC is that they have plenty of goal scorers in their team. Although Jemaa and Rogerinho are two the stars upfront, Tunisian midfielder Chadi Hammami and Kuwait internationals Waleed Ali and Abdullah Al Buraiki are all capable of getting on the scoresheet while the likes of Ali Al Kandari, Abdulhadi Khamis and Fahad Al Enezi can be quality options on the bench. The 11-time Kuwait champions are renowned for playing an attractive brand of football with plenty of short passes and every player including the defenders are encouraged to go forward. The only downside in their AFC Cup campaign so far has been the poor turnouts in their five home games with an average attendance of only 700. However that won’t take any pressure away from Kuwait SC, who are very proud of their AFC Cup record and would be determined to win the first leg convincingly. Anything less than that won’t be good enough for Kuwait’s oldest sports club.
The two legs of the semi-final are possibly the biggest games of East Bengal’s 93-year illustrious history but the build up to it has been far from ideal. First Japanese playmaker Ryuji Sueoka got ruled out of both legs due to the hamstring injury which he picked up in the second leg against Semen Padang. Then East Bengal’s request of postponing the first leg by a day was rejected. The club had cited too much travelling as the reason for the proposed postponement but hosts Kuwait SC didn’t agree. To make matters worse, the visas of three players – Mehtab Hossain, Arnab Mondal and Gurwinder Singh – also arrived late which meant the trio reached a day later. It’s not clear who is at fault for that mishap but East Bengal suspect conspiracy and believe the whole visa episode was done on purpose to affect their preparations. The Kolkata club were already the underdogs and have also suffered a psychological blow now ahead of this massive game.
East Bengal are the only unbeaten team in this year’s AFC Cup but this will be their first meeting against a West Asian side. Nothing can be taken away from East Bengal’s consistency but historically they have been poor against teams from that part of the continent with just two wins, two draws and 18 defeats in 22 matches. The red-and-gold brigade have scored seven goals in their four away games of this AFC Cup but have kept a clean sheet only once. They are likely to see very little of the ball in this match so the defending has to be solid right from the frontline. The physical fitness of the team will also be tested to the fullest considering the fact they have hardly had any competitive action outside the AFC Cup under Marcos Falopa and the constant travelling over the past seven days won’t help in that regard.
Brazilian Falopa passed his first test as East Bengal coach against Semen Padang but still remains in the shadow of Trevor Morgan and unlike the early days of his tenure is no longer enjoying comparisons with his predecessor. But the 64-year-old has a great chance to do something which Morgan failed i.e. to avoid defeat against a West Asian team although a loss by a one-goal margin also wouldn’t be a bad scoreline to take back to Kolkata. Falopa still has selection problems in midfield and must get his tactics right from the very first whistle because unlike Semen Padang, Kuwait SC are likely to punish any deficiency. East Bengal have already matched Dempo’s achievement and now are looking to surpass them. It’s a daunting task against a quality side but the Kolkata giants should have the support of the Indians living in Kuwait. They don’t really have to win the first leg but the players would have to play the game of their lives to at least keep alive this tie until the return leg in Kolkata on October 22nd.
Kuwait SC: WWWWW
The AFC Cup holders have been near perfect so far this season with six wins in seven games in all competitions, scoring 25 and conceding only six. The only defeat came after extra time against fellow AFC Cup semi-finalists Al Qadsia in the Super Cup on August 27.
East Bengal: WWWWD
East Bengal are unbeaten under Falopa so far but have only had three completed games in his tenure. Their only AFC Cup win in West Asia came five years ago against Jordan’s Al Wehdat and have lost both their previous two trips to Kuwait, conceding seven and scoring only once.