A record number of East Bengal fans (43,758) turned up on Sunday evening in the hope of witnessing their favourite side script a memorable win over Churchill Brothers and move an inch closer to their much elusive I-League title.
But they returned disappointed as the Kolkata giants had to remain content with just a point against the Goan side in the crucial tie.
The stage was set. The Red and Golds were in red hot form on the back of four consecutive wins. Churchill Brothers came to Kolkata with a depleted side and a dismal form. It was the ideal time for the Kolkata club to pick up yet another point and join Chennai City FC at the summit.
But Petr Gigiu had other plans. The Romanian coach of Churchill knew that playing ‘beautiful football’ will not help them against East Bengal, given the Red and Golds have players who are good on the ball. So they adopted the strategy of physically outmuscling the opposition.
Gigiu deployed four foreign players upfront who were physically dominant. They blocked the midfield, committed fouls and frustrated East Bengal players who lost their cool. In short, East Bengal were not allowed to play their natural game. Former East Bengal player Khalid Aucho, who famously said that East Bengal would not win the title, delivered a stellar performance in the defensive midfield role. He covered a lot of space in the central zone and did not allow a single ball to pass by him.
Alejandro Menendez’s plan B is generally to exploit the wings if his plan A of playing through the middle does not work. But on Sunday, Churchill countered their plan B brilliantly and credit must go to their wingers and wing backs.
In the absence of several first team players, Gigiu had fielded Nicholas Fernandes who has not been a regular starter in this season. But Fernandes brilliantly supported Wayne Vaz on the right flank and completely nullified Toni Dovale and Manoj Mohammad’s movements. Dovale has failed to make his mark ever since joining the team.
This East Bengal side’s Achilles' heel is the lack of physicality of the players. They have been exposed once this season when they managed to get only a point against Real Kashmir at home.
David Robertson’s Real Kashmir like to play an intense physical game and it worked for them against the Kolkata giants. Gigiu took a leaf out of Robertson’s tactics and utilised it to its fullest to stop East Bengal.
Alejandro Menendez’s side are still very much in the title race but the draw against Churchill has complicated their road to glory. They will now have to depend on Chennai City’s results if they want to get their hands on the coveted trophy.