By Abhishek Nair
The all exciting AFC Cup, the second tier of Asian club competition is back as India's big guns look to strut their stuff against top teams from across the continent. Indian clubs have significantly underachieved in this tournament but the Kolkata giants will look to break the ice this time round.
East Bengal has qualified for the AFC Cup for the fourth consecutive time and well the journey to get here has always been fruitful for the Red and Gold. Having said that, the club has not quite impressed as they have managed to get past the group stage of the AFC Cup only on one occasion, i.e 2004, where they bowed out to Al-Jaish on a 3-0 aggregate.
It's a new day and as East Bengal look to begin their quest of the elusive AFC Cup, we take a look at their tricky opponents Selangor FA (Malaysia) and what they bring to the table.
Selangor FA, the Shah Alam city based club has been a formidable force in the Malaysian Super League. Having finished third in 2012's Super League, we take a look at their strength or rather preferred style of play.
The Red Giants have stability in most areas with quality all over the pitch. A pretty well oiled midfield with their coach usually opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation. The Malaysian outfit relies heavily on their wingers and why not. Hardworking and pacey, the likes of Gurusamy on the right side will definitely cause problems to the East Bengal backline.
Right back Mahali Jasuli also known as the 'Malaysian Cafu' can cause all sorts of problems as he trotts forward without much difficulty in tracking back thus adding that extra value to the attack. The Malaysian outfit offers good value on the left as well with Kunanlan and Shukor threading neat balls together.
Relying mostly on their midfield dominance, Selangor love to score early and then set the pace with their fluid midfield.The Red Giants are well adept in soaking pressure and hitting on the counter with optimum use of the flanks playing a pivotal role. East Bengal would have done their homework on their opponents and would be expecting a barrage of crosses.
Irfan Bakti's men will look to make early inroads and since they are not a very physical side, the home side can expect quick one twos, neat short passes and through balls being threaded all game long with lightening quick work done on the flanks. It definitely seems to be a tough proposition in store for East Bengal.
The Red Giants have recently sported not one but two formations depending upon what coach Irfan Bakti feels would work against the opposition. The Malaysian outfit usually plays with the lone striker up front with wingers cutting and crossing to find that lone target man.
4-2-3-1 is the preferred formation but Selangor are also known to employ 4-4-1-1 where Ramzul Zahini plays just behind young striker Azmi. International winger N.Kunanlan on the left side of midfield along with Jusoh are key orchestrators of the Red Giants midfield. With the use of 4-2-3-1, the full backs have the space and the license to sprint up the flanks and bombard the box with crosses.
Inspirational captain Asraruddin has no hesitation in moving forward and we all have heard how dangerous Mahali can be with his vicious crossing. Francis Doe or Azmi are more than capable of latching on to the end of these crosses as they have proven in last year's edition of the Super League.
Would Irfan Bakti experiment with a front two rather than the lone striker and go for a standard 4-4-2 could be a last moment call but we don't expect any special changes against the Red and Gold with the defensively stable 4-2-3-1 seeming the more obvious choice.
The Malaysian Super League has only 2 places up for grabs but Selangor FA still managed to qualify as the Singapore Lions XII were runners up and thus could not play in the AFC Cup as they are not a Malaysian club. Last season ended with a third placed finish and one would have to say that the Red Giants did reasonably well.
With the 2013 edition of the Super League having already commenced, after 8 games Selangor FA are sitting pretty on top of the table and are only second to ATM FA with both teams on 14 points each as the Red Giants are behind on goal difference.
This rich vein of form in early season gives us a good estimate on the quality and form of opponent the Red and Gold are going to face. Amri Yahyah has been the top scorer for the Malaysian outfit with his tally of 3 goals in 8 games. Goals have come in from all positions with the midfielders and defenders chipping in as well for the Red Giants. A happy camp for now, the Malaysians will be confident to continue their brilliant start to the season when they take field at the Salt Lake stadium.
East Bengal will be a different proposition to what Selangor have faced in the Super League but we can be sure the pundits would back the Malaysian club who are setting the pace in their domestic league over an I-League side who haven't faced a tough opposition since the I-League break earlier this month.
Captain Mohammed Asraruddin
There are a number of game changers in this Selangor squad. A few of them are captain Mohammed Asraruddin, striker Francis Doe and defender Ramez Jamal Dayoub.
The captain Asraruddin is all of 24 but has bundles of experience having helped Malaysia qualify for the AFC U-20 Championship for the first time in 20 years. Already a key member of the Malaysian national team, the full back has also had trials with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven which speaks volumes of his talent. Not short on pace Asraruddin has that vital game sense that gives him the edge over the rest.
Francis Doe has played all across Africa before he went to Europe and plied his trade in Greece. The Liberian striker has been clinical in the Super League having netted 15 goals last season with his former side Terrengganu FA. With the better quality of service available at Selangor, one can expect more from the Liberian International.
Another vital player for the Red Giants is the defensive lynchpin Ramez Dayoub. The Lebanese International has impressed one and all since he arrived in Malaysia and is a regular fixture in the Red Giants starting line up. The 6 feet tall centre back is practically a rock at the back and getting past him will be challenge for the Red and Gold.
|BEST AFC CUP PERFORMANCE
Selangor FA bowed out of the AFC Cup last year as they failed to qualify into the knockout rounds after being drawn into a tough group. Their best performance though was in the 2006 edition of the AFC Cup when they eventually went out in the quarter finals against Al-Najmeh in what was a closely contested encounter. It was the solitary goal that saw the Malaysian outfit bowing out of the club competition.
The hosts Selangor were down to 10-men and a 23rd minute strike by Mohammad Ali was enough to set up a tough return leg at Beirut. The visitors had a number of chances to extend their lead but failed to do so as the scoreline read 1-0 at full time. Unfortuntaly for the Red Giants, the return leg was a goal less draw and the AFC Cup dream was all of a sudden over.
7 years down the line, the big guns from Malaysia have failed to replicate such form in the AFC Cup and having gone down to West Asian opposition on numerous occasions, the Red Giants will hope for welcome change in the Cup format.
An away match would never be easy but being one of the best teams in Malaysia would be enough to give confidence to this particular bunch of players as they embark upon another interesting AFC Cup campaign.
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