Panaji, February 18: SC East Bengal's maiden Hero Indian Super League campaign kicked off with the Kolkata derby against ATK Mohun Bagan FC at the Tilak Maidan Stadium on 27 November last year. SCEB fought hard, but lost the end-to-end contest 0-2 as Roy Krishna and Manvir Singh found the net for ATKMB.
The cross-town rivals are all set to meet once again this season, with league-toppers ATKMB playing host this time, at the Fatorda Stadium on Friday.
SCEB Assistant Coach Tony Grant and Captain Danny Fox addressed the media at the virtual pre-match conference on Thursday. Speaking about the first-leg encounter, Grant said, 'It was tough for us. We didn't get much time to prepare as a team, but as the process (of team building) has continued, we've improved. You can see that in the way the players enjoy themselves now.'
The context of this derby is different for both sides. While SCEB are making steady progress and competing hard against more settled outfits, ATKMB are pursuing a top-of-the-table finish to earn a direct entry into next season's AFC Champions League.
Notwithstanding these implications, no team starts as "favorites" in a game as big as this. Regardless of whatever has hitherto happened, the derby is going to be all about holding one's nerves and remaining vigilant through those ninety minutes.
'The first derby was a bit unfair on us, given our preparation time. It was more of a start of a new journey as most players hadn't played the ISL before. You can look at our campaign in two halves. Every day is a learning day here,' Grant answered when asked about the team morale, leading up to the match.
Currently ranked ninth on the table, with 17 points from as many matches (three wins, eight draws and six losses), the Red-and-Golds need to overcome their tendency to concede late goals, if they are to stop a side that thrives on scoring in the final quarter of a match.
Concentration lapses in the dying moments have hurt SCEB big time, perhaps accounting for the difference between them and the teams ranked fifth to seventh. A better display of defensive alertness between minutes 70 to 90 against Hyderabad FC (both legs), Kerala Blasters FC (first-leg) and FC Goa (first-leg) would've still kept them in contention for a playoff berth.
That said, the combination of Anthony Pilkington and Bright Enobakhare upfront, with Matti Steinmann and Jacques Maghoma chipping in from behind, augurs well for them and is expected to be Grant's trump card in the derby.
SCEB's defensive unit looks more sorted now with Sarthak Golui and Raju Gaikwad taking some of the load off Fox's shoulders, while veteran goalkeeper Subrata Paul has reaffirmed the worth of experience with some breathtaking saves at crucial junctures and relentless supply of vocal tonic from the back. Friday's contest would mark Paul's return to the derby fold after a twelve-year hiatus.
On the other hand, Antonio Lopez Habas' ATKMB head into the derby riding a four-match winning streak. With 36 points from 17 matches (eleven wins, and three draws and defeats apiece), they are just 2 points clear of second-placed Mumbai City FC.
With a lethal goal poacher like Roy Krishna in the side, who currently rules the scoring charts with thirteen goals, ATKMB are a threat to any defense. Moreover, Manvir Singh's (four goals) emergence as a potent Indian scorer and Marcelinho Pereira's (two goals in four matches) resurgence since joining this club make their frontline one of the best in the competition.
The match is being touted as a face-off between Krishna & co. and the SCEB defense. How are the Red-and-Golds preparing to resist the ATKMB attack?
'You want to play against the best players in the league, and Roy is certainly one of them. ATK are at the top of the table for a reason. We need to be defensively organised like we were against Jamshedpur (second-leg) and Hyderabad for the most part. We were disappointed not to get all three points against Hyderabad as they scored at the last moment.'
On the defensive front, ATKMB have the best record all season, having conceded just 10 goals, kept the most number of clean sheets (10), and tackled 622 times.
The trio of Sandesh Jhingan, Tiri and Pritam Kotal forms the core of this formidable backline, while Arindam Bhattacharja's stupendous form between the sticks makes him the leading contender for the Golden Glove award (48 saves and a M/G ratio of 153). Carl McHugh and Lenny Rodrigues (signed during the January window) add further solidity to the side and form the link between the defense and the attack.
Grant and Fox didn't forget to thank the SCEB fans for showing unflinching support through thick and thin. 'Thanks for all the support. We will do all we can to win those three points on Friday night and finish the season on a strong note,' they echoed.