Santosh Trophy giants Bengal wary of defending crown at home
Kolkata, Mar 18 (PTI) Their preparation hampered due to unavailability of players, 32-time champions Bengal were faced with the onerous task of maintaining a terrific home record as they geared up to open their Santosh Trophy campaign against Manipur here tomorrow.
The city has hosted the tournament on nine occasions and every time Bengal have won with flying colours. However, this time the defending champions are wary of "lack of preparation" as conceded by coach Ranjan Chowdhury.
"I don't recall a time when Bengal were so short of preparation. I think I am facing this situation for the first time. We are almost without preparation," Chowdhury said.
Bengal did not get to train with five of its players, including captain Jiten Murmu, as they were busy with I-League second division commitments.
In such a scenario, heavyweights like Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Kerala will look to breach 'fort Kolkata'.
Bengal have qualified with an all-win record defeating Chhattisgarh (2-0) and Jharkhand (2-0) in Patna. They find themselves clubbed with Chandigarh, Manipur, Kerala and Mahrashtra in what can be called the group of death.
Meanwhile, Group B features Goa, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab and Karnataka.
The top two teams will make the semifinal line-up, with the summit clash slated for April 1.
The lack of training had robbed Bengal of team building and coach Chowdhury lamented their preparation has been the worst ever in the history of the tournament.
"We had virtually no training before the tournament. It's been a tough preparation," Chowdhury said.
Bengal kick off their title defence against Manipur at Howrah Maidan tomorrow. They will be up against Maharashtra, who are the darkhorses, in their second match on March 21.
"Maharashtra will also be one of the toughest teams. Unlike us, they will have all their cream players represent the state as they do not have any I-League club," Chowdhury rued.
The tournament returns to Kolkata for the first time since 2009-10, when Shabbir Ali-coached Bengal had reclaimed the title after a decade.
Last season, Mridul Kanti Banerjee-coached Bengal defeated Goa in the summit clash to win the trophy after six years.
After playing out a goalless 90 minutes, Manvir Singh had scored the winner in the extra time in a tense finish at the GMC Stadium in Dabolim.
The tournament has lost its sheen over the years to the professional I-League and now the Indian Super League but despite the shortcomings all 10 teams will look to put up a competitive show to become the national champions.
Chowdhury, however, has the core of the team intact with five changes to the original squad that won the qualifiers in Patna.
"I'm not demoralised. Not at all. We always have to think positive. Everybody knows Bengal are favourites so pressure will be on us. We are up for the challenge."
More than on the field training, he is keen to build the team off the field in the little time frame available.
"The first task is to build the team spirit as these problems affect on the pitch.
"I will take them out and try to spend time together. I will try my best to motivate them off the field. The first two matches -- against Manipur and Maharashtra will be crucial. We hope to start off well as we have four days off after that, so there will be enough time," he concluded.
The opening day's other fixture will see five time champions Kerala lock horns against Chandigarh at the Rabindra Sarovar.
Group A: Bengal, Chandigarh, Manipur, Kerala and Maharashtra
Group B: Goa, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab and Karnataka.
Opening day's fixtures: Manipur vs Bengal (Howrah Maidan); Chandigarh vs Kerala (Rabindra Sarovar)