In six months from now, most fans will have no distinct memory of this game – another one in the long chequered history of East Bengal. But had there been any upsets in the take-off period of Alejandro Menendez’s East Bengal stint, there would be whispers at the Maidan about his credentials.
And it was not an easy test either. NEROCA had finished their debut campaign last season two places above East Bengal and have been able to retain the core of their side. But on Saturday afternoon, in front of a 26,000-strong partisan crowd, Enrique Esqueda’s heroics helped the Kolkata club bag full three points.
In a clash of two Spanish coaches, Manuel Retamero fielded in his team in a 3-4-3 with three former East Bengal players in Eduardo Ferreira, Subash Singh and Yusa Katsumi part of the starting XI. Menendez, on the other hand, preferred a classical 4-4-2, with Kamalpreet Singh sitting deep in midfield while Lalrindika Ralte had the license to roam forward.
The nervous start from last season’s star performer Aryn Williams gave the Kolkata club an unexpected boost when a ball loosely headed back by him was dispatched into the target by Enrique to open his account on Indian soil. It was a classic striker’s goal, an art the Red and Golds’ fans might have faint memories of, having endured a couple of seasons where Willis Plaza was their main striker.
Esqueda's deft touches, while controlling long passes as well as often laying down balls for teammates, showed that he would not be content with only being physically present in the box and has the ability to stretch the defences with his movement. Early in the second half, he doubled the lead with a penalty-kick, the veracity of which couldn’t even be tested by TV replays.
However, the Mexican’s dream debut pointed out one glaring hole in his side’s squad – the lack of a match-winning second striker. Gagandeep Bali was not available for selection, having encountered a problem at his day job and Jobby Justin looked anything but convincing going forward. The recent barren years might have blurred how this haunted them in the 2014-15 season, an issue discussed in this column at length back then. A new signing can change things in case the club can get their transfer ban reversed, but for now, the bench strength is not up to the mark.
Apart from that, it was a good performance defensively. Alejandro preferred to keep the defensive line deep, considering the combined age of two centre-backs was 66 and that seemed to be a reasonable choice. With the team’s lynchpin Mahmoud Al-Amna missing out with injury, Ralte took the baton of holding the ball in midfield and spraying it out to wings, while Kamalpreet Singh played his destructive roll well.
The defensive partnership of Borja Gomez and Johnny Acosta completely overshadowed NEROCA striker Felix Chidi – who was rarely spotted close to the action. Despite all this, NEROCA saw more of the ball. East Bengal didn’t show any penchant of playing possession football – an expectation emboldened perhaps by the nationality of their coach. The home side was much better in this respect even though they found it difficult to string together forward passes.
They consistently maintained double possession as compared to their opponents. It reminded one of Retamero’s previous Aizawl innings, where his team was arguably the best to watch in the early stages, but here also, the side lacked the end-product.
Yusa Katsumi, who was the victim of a number of rash challenges in the first half, had to finally leave the field battered half-way into the contest but Retamero’s decision to deploy him in a deep role failed to unravel his full potential. The right wing also needs further polishing, while the Dene Meitei – Subash Singh partnership on the left wing can certainly wreak havoc against weaker sides.
NEROCA missed the services of Varney Kallon whose return should provide greater defensive stability to the Imphal-based side. Eduardo and co. remained serious threats during dead-ball situations, but the team rarely created a good chance from open play.
East Bengal will now have to ensure there’s no slip-up against the all-Indian squad of bogey team Shillong Lajong, against whom the Kolkata giants have won only twice in last seven meetings. NEROCA will have to address a number of issues before they host Gokulam on Wednesday.