Even the most ardent East Bengal supporters must have feared the worst when their side was down 3-0 at halftime in the AFC Cup semi-final first leg against Kuwait SC on Tuesday. Things didn’t get any better at the start of the second half also as the Kolkata club conceded the fourth in the 48th minute.
At that point the general feeling was that the return leg in Kolkata would become a formality but Brazilian coach Marcos Falopa and his players thought differently.
Historically East Bengal have thrived in hopeless situations and their current team too showed bags of resilience to score two away goals and make the two-legged semi-final tie interesting again. At 4-0 it would have been easy for Falopa and his players to throw in the towel and opt for damage limitation in a bid to avoid an embarrassment.
But the 64-year-old coach made three positive changes and took the game to Kuwait SC, who also contributed in East Bengal’s fight back by getting complacent. The goals came from two of the most consistent performers of the 2013 AFC Cup – Uga Okpara and Lalrindika Ralte as East Bengal finished with a flourish to eventually win the second half.
So impressive was East Bengal’s fight back that defending AFC Cup champions Kuwait SC were forced to take the ball to the corner flag and slow the game down. It was a heartening sight for any Indian football fan in general so those who didn’t watch the match or gave up watching at 4-0 missed out on something special. East Bengal’s comeback was even more commendable because they didn’t let the disrupted pre-match preparations affect them at all.
Considering the poor record of Indian teams (both at club and international level) in West Asia the East Bengal fight back was inconceivable. The red-and-gold brigade was up against a side that had won the AFC Cup twice, played in Asian Champions League and had players who regularly compete in top international competitions like the Asian Cup or African Nations Cup.
Perhaps the gulf in class between the sides on paper explains East Bengal’s negativity and naivety in the first half which saw them get completely outclassed although Kuwait SC hardly came out of their second gear.
But the East Bengal camp must have been encouraged by the golden opportunity that was squandered by Edeh Chidi at 1-0 in the first half. Kuwait SC gave the impression that although they have some classy individual players their overall team play was a bit disjointed and they particularly looked vulnerable at the back.
So the second half introductions of Lalrindika, Baljit Sahni and Cavin Lobo worked wonders and the comeback has now given East Bengal a glimmer of hope for the second leg. The backing of a capacity crowd and the artificial turf could help the Kolkata giants get the requisite result to overturn the 4-2 deficit.
However it still remains a daunting task considering the experience and quality of Kuwait SC. The defending Kuwait champions have only lost twice by a two-goal margin (or more) in 51 AFC Cup matches. In fact they have only suffered two defeats by two or more goals in 80 matches in all competitions with the last one coming in August when they lost 3-1 after extra-time against fellow AFC Cup semi-finalists Al Qadsia in the Super Cup.
Although East Bengal will have home advantage it might suit Kuwait SC to play on the counter attacks and two of their goals in the first leg came after breaking down an East Bengal attack. Five years ago even Dempo looked in a good position after their semi-final first leg against Lebanon’s Safa as they only lost 1-0 away. But they were beaten 4-1 in the return leg in Goa as the Lebanese club destroyed them in the counter attacks.
So East Bengal still face a massive challenge in the second leg but in truth the players shouldn’t put any additional pressure on themselves and relish the occasion which they have earned after some real hard work over ten games.
The 93-year-old club has already made India and Indian football proud with their consistency in the AFC Cup this season including a nine-game unbeaten run, which is the joint-fourth best streak in a single edition of the tournament. East Bengal still also have the only perfect home record in this year’s competition and managed to score in nine of their 10 matches.
It’s fair to say that like so many times in the last century, East Bengal have yet again exceeded expectations in this year’s AFC Cup and their performances in the tournament has been the only real positive of what has been a difficult year for Indian football overall due to the failures of the senior national team and the never ending controversies starting from the I-League – IMG Reliance deadlock to the regular age frauds in junior tournaments.
Back in September 2011 many football fans around the country travelled to Kolkata to get a glimpse of Lionel Messi even if a match ticket (which was quite expensive) wasn’t available. East Bengal’s consistency deserves the same level of commitment from every football fan in India because the aim should be having a packed Salt Lake Stadium on October 22nd for the second leg in order to make life difficult for Kuwait SC. And the tickets will be much cheaper than that historic international friendly between Argentina and Venezuela two years ago.
East Bengal may not reach the AFC Cup 2013 final but they should already be a considered a winner by every Indian for making Indian football relevant again on the international stage.