Fatigue could derail East Bengal’s I-League title charge once again
Baljit Sahni’s successful penalty against Mohun Bagan on Sunday not only sent East Bengal to the final of the 117th IFA Shield but also kept alive their hopes of completing an incredible domestic quadruple. East Bengal have already won the Federation Cup, lead the Calcutta Football League (CFL) table, and are very much in contention for the I-League. And let’s not forget the possibility of reaching the knock-out stages of the AFC Cup, having picked up four points in two games.
But the quadruple dream ended for good on Wednesday as Prayag United won the IFA Shield final 1-0, and East Bengal now must shift their focus to the I-League, where they lie in second place, two points behind league leaders Churchill Brothers and having played a game more.
Despite the penalty delight against arch-rivals Mohun Bagan, the performance was proof of the fact that some of East Bengal’s first-choice players are starting to suffer from fatigue, as the games have been coming thick and fast in recent weeks.
Wednesday’s Shield final was East Bengal’s 47th game of the season. No other I-League club has played more matches this season, but what could hurt the red-and-gold brigade more is the congestion in their fixture schedule.
During the I-League break (February 10-March 20), East Bengal played 11 matches in 40 days while fellow title contenders Churchill Brothers only had four games, which allowed many of their key players to have a proper breather while the highly influential Beto could also recover from an injury.
For 80 minutes of the IFA Shield final, East Bengal were without their top scorer Edeh Chidi, who could only come on as a late substitute due to a back injury. Trevor Morgan might have prioritised Saturday’s home I-League game against Air India, but there is no doubt that Chidi’s injury will be a concern, while the likes of Harmanjot Singh Khabra, Sanju Pradhan, Penn Orji and Mehtab Hossain, who has also been playing for the national team and his office team, have looked a bit jaded as they have hardly been rested.
Unlike in Goa, where clubs virtually play their youth sides in the local league, there is too much pressure on the coaches in Kolkata to play their best possible eleven even in the local league and tournaments like the IFA Shield, and once again that could hamper East Bengal’s I-League title hopes.
Under Morgan, East Bengal have been highly consistent in almost every competition, but that has come at a price as they have run out of legs in crucial periods of the I-League. The additional distraction of the AFC Cup has only made their busy schedule even more complicated.
In 2010-11, Morgan finished runners-up in the I-League despite fielding a weakened team in the IFA Shield, but back then, his squad lacked depth and wasted a lot of energy winning the Federation Cup, Calcutta Football League (CFL) and the Mohammedan Sporting Platinum Jubilee Cup. The following season, the English coach was under more pressure to play full strength sides in the local league and IFA Shield, and as a result, they fell short in the I-League once again.
This season too, Morgan has been forced to play strong sides in the local league, and his key players didn’t get a breather during the I-League break and instead had to play three games a week and endure a lot of travelling as they also had an away AFC Cup match.
The good start in the AFC Cup will give Morgan a dilemma, but one can expect him to prioritise the I-League as it is a competition that fans and club officials desperately crave for. But once again East Bengal will have to fight heavily against fatigue to find consistency and regain the title that they last won in 2004.
East Bengal will have to play at least 10 games between March 23 and May 12, and that number could rise to 12 if the IFA slots their remaining two local league matches in that period. The travelling for AFC Cup away matches in between I-League games is only going to make matters worse for East Bengal, so Morgan would be desperately hoping for some of the fringe players to step up while fourth foreigner Andrew Barisic could also be a key player in the final weeks.
A couple of consolations for the Kolkata giants will be the fact that their fixture list is highly favourable, as five of their remaining six I-League matches are in Kolkata, while even Churchill Brothers have AFC Cup commitments during their title run-in.
However at the business end of the season, the experience and quality of key players are essential and thus the burnout of stars like Chidi, Khabra and Mehtab could come back to haunt East Bengal in the end. They would also be aware that other contenders Dempo and Pune FC don’t have any other distraction and will do everything to win the I-League.
Unless the club officials and fans realise that every competition can’t be won with the same set of players, every coach in a big Kolkata club will fail to keep his players fresh for the I-League title run-in. Morgan faces the same problem for the third straight season, and has his task cut out to avoid a similar outcome.