It’s very rare for a sports league’s stature to multiply just because a new team has been added to its roster but the Indian Super League (ISL) is bound to see its popularity and soar as footballing giants East Bengal join the top-flight league.
Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, two of India’s biggest football clubs, were long expected to join the ISL, however, financial issues kept delaying the final step. The ISL’s promotion to the top division slot of the nation proved to be the catalyst.
First, it was Mohun Bagan who merged with defending champions ATK to form ATK Mohun Bagan. East Bengal were not going to stay far behind having seen their arch-rivals enter the ISL. Under dramatic circumstances and almost at the last minute (late September), the Kolkata club joined the ISL after attracting investments from Shree Cement Limited.
We will see them compete in the league under their new avatar — SC East Bengal. To make things even more interesting, they would be opening their campaign against ATK Mohun Bagan on 27 November.
East Bengal have appointed Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler as their manager for the season, who has managed to undertake a massive overhaul of the squad in a very short period. Will it be enough for East Bengal to be competitive in the league this time around or do they need more time? We take a look at their transfers, strengths, and weaknesses.
There have been a lot of incomings and outgoings at the club. East Bengal have let go of the majority of players from their previous campaign, in the I-League. Some of the biggest Indian names to join them are Balwant Singh, CK Vineeth, Jeje Lalpekhlua, and Eugeneson Lyngdoh.
The foreign contingent brings in a lot of English and A-League experience. Anthony Pilkington joins them from Wigan Athletic, a winger who has three years of Premier League experience. Scottish defender Danny Fox has spent the majority of his career in English Championship but also has Premier League experience with Southampton. Australian right-back Scott Neville and Welsh striker Aaron Amadi-Holloway have earlier played under Fowler and Matti Steinmann joins in from A-League. Congo midfielder Jacques Maghoma is the other foreign recruit.
East Bengal bring along with themselves millions of fans and a legacy of 100 years to the league. The ISL would be played behind closed doors this season due to the coronavirus but there’s no doubt they would be one of the most strongly supported sides on the digital platforms and that would ensure that there’s no lack of motivation for Folwer and Co.
On paper, the East Bengal squad looks just a shade weaker than their counterparts and it’s understandable considering their opponents had months to scout and recruit for the 2020-21 season. Having said that, the presence of Fowler in the dressing room should serve as a big incentive. Apart from being a legendary footballer, Fowler in his limited time as the manager of Brisbane Roar in the A-League showed that he could whip a good team in a short span and inspire them to achieve decent results. In his debut season in Australia, Fowler took a ninth-placed Brisbane to the fourth position in the table.
Common sense dictates that the first season in the league should be about testing the water but that cannot be the only goal when you are East Bengal. The vociferous fans of the Red and Gold brigade are a passionate bunch of people but can also be unforgiving at times. The pressure to match the expectations of the fans and the performance of ATK Mohun Bagan could, at times, prove to be too intimidating.
Then there’s the humungous task at hand to create chemistry within a squad that has a whole bunch of newcomers. As always, it’s one of the toughest jobs to do in football. Fowler managed a similar task efficiently at Brisbane last season and maybe once again he would take to the strategy of creating a siege mentality around his squad to get the best out of his boys.
Fowler, in one of the initial press interactions after joining the East Bengal said that he wants them to be a “possession-based team”. His managerial career has been pretty brief so far to figure out his philosophy.
In 2011, he played and managed Thailand’s Muangthong United before taking a long break. Fowler then returned to management with Brisbane Roar in Australia in 2019. The progress his team showed in the league has been documented earlier in this preview, however, it came with a style where defensive duties were prioritised over other things.
They allowed just 28 goals in 26 games with Fowler deploying three centre-backs and full-backs. They also scored just 29 goals with counter-attack being their most potent threat. At East Bengal, we may see a repeat of that considering the club is in its first season in ISL and haven’t had much time to improve the squad.
In the first season in the league, East Bengal would be raring to show what a ‘legacy club’ is all about but there are obvious challenges. Fowler has recruited smartly in whatever little time he had, plus they also have some established Indian names. Winning the title or a playoff spot may be a bridge too far for them this season but they can certainly aim for a mid-table finish.
Goalkeepers: Debjit Majumder, Rafique Ali, Mirshad Michu, Sankar Roy
Defenders: Abhishek Ambekar, Anil Chawan, Daniel Fox, Gurtej Singh, Lalramchullova, Mohamed Irshad, Nayaran Das, N Rohen Singh, Novin Gurung, Rana Gharami, Samad Mallick, Scott Neville, Pritam Singh
Midfielders: Bikash Jairu, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Haobam Singh, Jacques, Loken Meitei, Milan Singh, Mohammed Rafique, Sehnaj Singh, Surchandra Singh, Matti Steinmann, Wahengbam Luwan, Yumnam Singh, Anthony Pilkington, CK Vineeth, Harmanpreet Singh
Forwards: Balwant Singh, Girik Khosla, Jeje Lalpekhlua, Aaron Amadi Holloway