Can Churchill Brothers and East Bengal transform India’s flimsy reputation on the Asian stage?

Indian clubs have never enjoyed much success at the AFC cup but discusses whether that could change this time around.
It’s that time of the year again. The Europa League’s Asian counterpart competition AFC Cup is here, and as always, we Indians are serendipitously included! Although the I-League winner must get a qualifying spot (at least) for the AFC Champions League, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) feels that the financial status, marketability, professionalism and football competitiveness of our domestic league and clubs is worthy only of two AFC Cup spots. Even the most instinctive skeptic wouldn’t disagree with the AFC in that regard. Hence, no complaints. Moving on. 

This season, East Bengal (last season’s Federation Cup winners) and Churchill Brothers (I-League 3rd place entry due to Dempo pulling out and East Bengal being the league runner-ups) have been chosen as India’s flag bearers at the Asian stage. The history of Indian clubs in this competition is not a romantic one. Apart from Dempo gloriously reaching the semi-final stage in 2008, Indian clubs have been dull and uninspiring over the last few years. Those clubs who have managed to qualify in the past have completely been outwitted, outmaneuvered and encapsulated by more solid and clinical West Asian and East Asian outfits.

Here is a timeline of Indian performances from 2008 in the AFC Cup:

2008 Dempo reached Semifinal stage and lost 5-1 while East Bengal only managed to finish 3rd in the group stage.
2009 Mohun Bagan finished last in the group stage: Played 6, Lost 6, Scored 1 goal, Conceded 19 with a goal difference of -18. While Dempo lost in the round of 16.
2010 ast Bengal were humiliated in the group stage finishing last: Played 6, Lost 6, Scored 5, Conceded 20 with a goal difference of -15. Meanwhile Churchill Brothers qualified for the round of 16 and lost.
2011 East Bengal finished last in the group stage, again. Dempo wriggled through to the round of 16 and lost.
2012 Both Salgaocar and East Bengal gave the stodgiest performances finishing last in their respective groups.

Unlike the Europa League, teams who have qualified for the Round of 16 in the AFC Cup play only a single game rather than a home and away fixture on a 2-leg basis. Hence it is extremely important for teams to win their respective groups so that they get home advantage for the knockout round. Indian teams who have reached the round of 16 have almost always played away from home, in hostile conditions and have failed to progress.

Another trend noticed over the past few years is that a Goan and Kolkatan club always make it to the AFC Cup (no exception this time round as well). Teams from Goa have always had the upper hand over their Kolkatan colleagues. For some reason, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have been humiliated, annihilated and destroyed on the Asian stage. (No intentions of sparking off yet another ludicrous debate about Goa-Kolkata football rivalry!)

Churchill Brothers managed to rope in Indian Captain Sunil Chhetri, Afghanistan striker Balal Arezou and former Pune FC player Lamine Tamba into their team on transfer deadline day, further bolstering their squad strength. Taking each game one at a time should be Churchill’s policy for success. They have been ruthless in the I-League so far, but playing in Asia calls for a whole new level of dynamism.

Trevor Morgan’s East Bengal have to finally realize something from their past mistakes in Asia. They have a good squad of young and exciting Indian players and some really strong physical African players. The British coach must put on that thinking cap and alter his tactics in the AFC Cup. Their striker Edeh Chidi was part of the heroic Dempo side that once reached the Semifinals in 2008. He would know the exact feeling of success at the Asian stage and would look to emulate his devastating form that took Dempo to greater heights that season.  

Churchill Brothers have been placed in Group E alongside Kitchee SC (Hong Kong), Warriors FC (Singapore) and Semen Padang FC (Indonesia). They kickstart their campaign with an away fixture at Kitchee SC on Tuesday, 26th February.
Meanwhile Kolkatan giants East Bengal are placed in Group H alongside Tampines Rovers (Singapore), Selangor FA (Malaysia) and SàiGòn Xuân Thành FC (Vietnam). The Red and Gold Brigade begin their campaign with a home game against Malaysian outfit Selangor on Wednesday, 27th February.

It’s time to announce the strength of India to Asia. Here’s wishing both teams the best of luck!

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