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East Bengal's Willis Plaza conundrum over in Churchill win? Probably no!

6:11 PM GMT 16/12/2017
Willis Plaza Arnab Mondal East Bengal Churchill Brothers I-League 2017/2018
The Kolkata club heaved a sigh of relief with their 96th minute winner, but will it bring about the expected change in Willis Plaza's form?

OPINION
BY ATANU MITRA (@Atanu00 on Twitter)

The trend of lighting up football stands with flashlights of cell-phones have gained immense popularity this decade, but if East Bengal supporters are allowed to have their way, it’s often a more surreal view. Newspapers are set on fire to make them look like the flame on the club’s crest and then the flares are held aloft quite dangerously in the densely populated gallery to celebrate victories.

Like East Bengal’s faithful, the officials also played with fire this season regarding the future of a player at the club. The main protagonist of this drama is Trinidad and Tobago international Willis Plaza, who scored a brace and set up another goal to help the Kolkata giants notch up a much needed 3-2 victory against Churchill Brothers at Barasat.

In most other cases, it would have been heralded as a masterclass coming from the number nine of the team. However, here, the conundrum around Plaza took another misty turn, confounding officials and fans alike. Any reinforcement will have to wait until 15th January and the jury is still out on whether the club has been too patient in waiting for Plaza’s redemption.

Except for his twin strikes in the added minutes of both halves, the striker was very poor, wasting plenty of chances. Yusa Katsumi, Mahmoud Al Amna and Laldanmawia Ralte all created opportunities for him to pounce on, but Plaza was at his unimaginative best, following one tame effort with another. Even before scoring the decisive goal in the 96th minute, he wasted two clear-cut chances in the injury-time, prompting Yusa Katsumi to go on an uncharacteristic rant. The slump in form had started last season but reached new lows in the Calcutta Football League (CFL) this year.

"Last year, my brother died of cancer and that unsettled me. This season, I will try to make amends," he had said before the start of the season, but the early signs have all been too ominous.

Plaza’s two goals have brought three points and some relief for Khalid Jamil, whose team is now third in the table, only a point behind arch-rivals Mohun Bagan. But the question lingers on about whether this performance will be enough to bring him back to his old usual self.

The never-ending discussion about Plaza shouldn’t take the light away from East Bengal’s other problems as well. Prakash Sarkar, the youngster who had put in a great shift at right-back in the last tie, made a silly error to allow the second goal while Armand Bazzou, playing as the pivot, also failed to impress. It was known that his distribution will probably not be up to the mark, but the Ivorian has also struggled to do his primary duty, i.e. to shield the defence.

The hosts were very sloppy in the opening minutes of the match, allowing an inexperienced Churchill side to draw the first blood. Kalu Ogba’s inclusion has bolstered the Goan side, while like the first three matches, Nicholas Fernandes remained the most potent threat in the opponent territory.

The Red and Golds equalized soon through Danmawia, who took advantage of a shambolic offside trap after being fed by a quality through-ball by Plaza. As the game wore on, they increased the pressure but was made to wait due to poor finishing and a good goalkeeping performance by Kithan for the travellers.

He was, though, in no way the best performer of the evening, even though the official award went to him. That trophy, should have been reserved for Yuta Katsumi, who once again proved what he brings to the table by being a tireless worker and providing two assists for Plaza. When Al Amna faced difficulties to make inroads into the box, Yusa and Ralte ensured the supply of crosses from both the wings. Salam Ranjan Singh sent in a few good deliveries on overlaps, while Cavin Lobo also was composed in his central midfield role.

Another headache for Khalid would be the little impact Charles D’Souza is making. A signing made due to the coach’s insistence, the former Chennai City striker has failed to make any mark in the limited playing minutes he has earned. It’s not clear what kind of a role Khalid had thought for him before recruiting, but if the situation persists, the calls for a replacement will get louder.

The most viable solution is to shift to a 4-4-2, with Charles upfront and Plaza - who has better control and can create havoc if afforded space - as the second striker. In that case, Bazzou will have to be content with a place on the bench while Lobo might have to be sacrificed for Mohammed Rafique, who has better defensive qualities. But, Jamil has stuck with plans to deploy a single striker.

Since the start of the league campaign, East Bengal were facing two challenges– one of bagging three points to propel their title challenge and another of helping Plaza regain his form. It remains to be seen whether the second one is out of their way now. If that happens, Khalid needs to address the many frailties of the squad, which is still operating quite below its full potential. If Plaza continues to squander chances, East Bengal’s miseries are far from over.