The reverse fixture of this I-League season's Kolkata derby is upon us, accompanied by some rumbling clouds which are expected to provide the thunder and lightning befitting this clash. For there is a lot riding on this game for both teams.
Unlike the game in February which ended in a drab 0-0 result, Sunday's marquee clash is expected to throw up goals and a victor. In the first edition of this season's derby, both teams went into the game on the back of excellent runs and were wont not to take risks. It showed as the game ended up disappointing the expectant spectators.
Apart from the all the razzmatazz and the yearning for bragging rights that envelop this headline fixture, there is a significant whirlpool to this derby - one which could decide where Indian football's top-flight trophy could be headed. It has been some time since India's biggest fixture had this big a say in the I-League title race. One wrong move on Saturday and hopes of silverware could drown very quickly.
East Bengal went into the first Kolkata derby of the season in high spirits, having won 6 games on the trot, but saw their momentum doused by that 0-0 result. They have flickered on and off from there on, often forcing Trevor Morgan to publicly berate the attitude of his players. But their biggest problem was the injury sustained by star midfielder Wedson Anselme in the 3-1 thrashing of Bengaluru away at the Sree Kanteerava stadium.
Ever since that, Morgan has been forced to abandon his preferred 4-1-2-1-2 diamond which had given him flexibility to utilise his attacking options well while Mehtab Hossain thrived at the base of the diamond. Nikhil Poojari also stood out on the right but the crown jewel of the diamond was Anselme at the tip. The Haitian's vision, ability to carry the ball forward with ease from midfield and finishing prowess was so vital to Morgan's set up.
In his absence, the Englishman went for a 4-1-3-2 with Mohammed Rafique starting as the attacking midfielder ahead of Mehtab against Shillong Lajong and Churchill Brothers. His performance was dismal and Morgan was forced to push Willis Plaza, who was returning from injury, into that role. It scarcely worked out and though the striker netted a goal against Chennai City, East Bengal were consigned to defeats in Goa and Chennai just prior to the international break.
Now, Anselme's return should see Morgan revert to his favoured 'diamond' formation. Larindika Ralte should be on the left with Mehtab Hossain at the base. However, Nikhil Poojari will not be present for the game and it will be a loss for The Red and Golds. Not only has he been impressive on the right of midfield, he also completed their U-22 quota. Now, that could open up an opportunity for Abhinash Ruidas. Meanwhile, Willis Plaza and Chris Payne should start up front.
As far as the defence is considered, the full backs are very important for Morgan in this set up as they provide him width and balance, especially on the left. Rahul Bheke and Robert Lalthlamuana, who are expected to pump in the crosses for the two tall forwards, are expected to start the game with Ivan Bukenya. Morgan will go for Gurwinder Singh to partner the Ugandan in central defence as former skipper Arnab Mondal has been dropped after he failed to impress after his return from injury.
Talking about the designated 'home' team, injuries have plagued Sanjoy Sen's side like no other. First team regulars Pranoy Halder and Subhasish Bose are ruled out while Raynier Fernandes and Shilton Paul will also miss the tie. Sanjoy Sen has been presented with a headache as such, but the squad will be buoyed after two uplifting results in the past week.
Having waylaid Bengaluru FC 3-0 at home, Bagan followed it up with a 4-1 win over Abahani Ltd Dhaka in the AFC Cup, with Balwant Singh impressing in no small part in the game. It might see the former Churchill Brothers striker start up front with Darryl Duffy in Sen's favoured formation of 4-4-2. With Morgan expected to revert to his diamond, the midfield becomes crucial for The Mariners.
That is where the absence of the solid Pranoy Halder is likely to hit them hard. With Wedson Anselme expected to roam freely, as well as Dika slotting in centrally at times, Halder's ability to shield his defence and win loose balls would have been crucial for Sen. Instead, he now will have to utilise Sehnaj Singh, along with Souvik Chakraborti or Bikramjit Singh as they hope to win the midfield battle.
Another problem faced by The Mariners is the U-22 player quota. With Subhasish Bose ruled out, Sen will have no other alternative than to start with Azharuddin Mallick up top with Darryl Duffy as he would certainly make way for Balwant Singh in the second half.
Now, with Bheke and Lalthlamuana expected to push forward and deliver crosses for The Red and Golds, Mohun Bagan's wingers Sony Norde and Yusa Katsumi could exploit the space left behind by the full backs. But Norde, as we have often seen, has not performed to the best in this fixture. Interestingly, Bheke has managed to keep the Haitian on a leash on more than one occasion. Once again, this battle will be key to the outcome of the war that will be fought on Sunday.
At the other side, Katsumi is also a threat. The Bagan skipper may not be as tricky as the Haitian but has a lovely set-piece delivery and is intelligent with his movement. Lalthlamuana, who isn't really the most accomplished at juggling offensive and defensive roles, will have his hands full.
While all these intriguing sub-plots add spice to an already flavourful clash, it is up to the teams to serve up a mouthwatering fare at the Kanchenjunga stadium in Siliguri. The setting is ideal, the stakes are high and the glinting silverware is attainable for both teams.
Will the marauding Mariners breach Morgan's diamond or will it pierce a hole in Sanjoy Sen's unfurling sails? All eyes are on Siliguri!