Author : Amoy Ghoshal
Venue: Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata
Kickoff: Tuesday, October 22 2013, 16:00 IST (LIVE on Star Sports)
First Leg Result: Kuwait SC 4-2 East Bengal
East Bengal’s requirement: 2-0 or 3-1 win to progress on away goals or triumph by three goals or more. A 4-2 win will take the second leg to extra time with away goals not applicable. The match goes to a penalty shootout if it still remains level on aggregate after extra time.
Photo Credit: WSG
East Bengal have already made India proud with their semi-final run, which includes a nine-match unbeaten streak and 100 percent home record. But now the red-and-gold brigade have the chance to create history and become the first Indian club to reach the final of any Asian club competition.
11 years ago, no one gave East Bengal a chance to beat Thailand’s BEC Tero Sasana, at that time continent’s second-best club side, in the Asean Cup final. But Subhash Bhowmick’s team achieved the impossible and now Brazilian coach Marcos Falopa and his players are on the verge of something even more special.
However, it is an immensely daunting task as East Bengal not only have to win but also must triumph by at least two clear goals without conceding more than once.
The fact that their opponents Kuwait SC have lost only twice by two goals or more in their last 82 matches shows the enormity of East Bengal’s challenge. On paper, the Kolkata giants have no chance but they still must believe and take heart from their fightback in the first leg in Kuwait.
Falopa passed his first test as East Bengal coach by beating Indonesian champions Semen Padang over two legs in the quarter-finals but the performances were far from convincing and the loopholes in his tactics has been exposed in the first leg defeat to Kuwait SC and the loss against Dempo in the I-League.
Strangely though, the Brazilian has consistently got his substitutions right with players coming off the bench and scoring in four of their last five matches. But the equation in this tie demands consistency from the very first whistle so Falopa can’t afford to depend on his inspired substitutions to overcome the two-goal deficit.
The defeat to Dempo will serve as a good reminder for the 64-year-old of the problems his team could face against Kuwait SC if they play a flat 4-4-2 and that concentration levels will have to be top-notch for the entire game because the defending Asian champions will punish any small mistake.
The East Bengal faithful still dearly miss Trevor Morgan but Falopa has the opportunity to become the new darling of the club’s enormous fanbase.
The big hope for East Bengal is their 12th man. Although the passion turns into hooliganism at times as Dempo’s Samir Naik found out last week, Falopa’s side would certainly relish playing in front of more than 60,000 supporters and it should take their performance to another level.
East Bengal would also be aiming to make the most of their familiarity with Salt Lake Stadium’s artificial turf especially considering that Kuwait SC like most top teams around the world prefer playing on natural surfaces.
However the most important thing for the 93-year-old club will be their performance. They do need to score two at least but will also have to defend well and thus going all out from the very first whistle isn’t exactly necessary.
East Bengal will have to show maturity and pick their moments of going forward in numbers and above all be clinical. Falopa must also remind the players that all the pressure will be on favourites Kuwait SC so they must enjoy the occasion and play without fear just like the final half hour of the first leg.
On paper, it looks ‘Mission Impossible’ but strange things do happen in the beautiful game.
Kuwait SC having a training session at the Salt Lake Stadium
When this semi-final match-up was confirmed, very few people except East Bengal fans would have imagined the tie to be still alive coming into the second leg.
Even after the first 48 minutes of the first leg, it looked like Kuwait SC had progressed to a third straight AFC Cup final as they were 4-0 up with East Bengal looking ragged.
All that contemplation should only have been done by fans and perhaps the media but in this case it looked like the Kuwait SC players in their minds were already thinking about the final as they simply dropped their tempo and allowed East Bengal to come at them.
Or perhaps they started playing with a ‘handbrake’ as Arsene Wenger likes to call it. But whatever the reason was for their slackness, East Bengal punished them by scoring two vital away goals and perhaps with a bit more belief, could have nicked another.
The 4-2 result kept this semi-final wide open and now Kuwait SC must come up with a solid display in Kolkata.
A lot has been made about East Bengal’s crowd support, but it is worth reminding that the 2012 AFC Cup final was played in front of 30,000 passionate supporters of Iraq’s Arbil but Kuwait SC showed their class by running out 4-0 winners to lift their second title.
East Bengal will have home advantage but don’t expect Kuwait SC to get intimidated and although they are not familiar with the artificial turf, they will certainly not use that as an excuse and instead adapt accordingly.
The Kuwait champions have had a perfect record so far in their domestic league, winning the first six matches and have scored 16 goals in their last three AFC Cup knockout matches.
While a semi-final is unfamiliar territory for East Bengal, Kuwait SC have consistently featured at this round of the competition winning six out of seven semi-final matches. Everything points to not only a Kuwait SC progression to the final but a second leg win for them as well. Hence, anything less will be a major upset.
Clearly, Kuwait SC are technically and tactically head and shoulders above East Bengal so the concern again for their Romanian coach Marin Ion will be about the psychological aspect of his players.
Complacency could be the greatest enemy of Ion’s side just like the final half hour of the first leg when they allowed East Bengal to comeback and make this tie a contest again. It’s worth noting that after securing qualification by winning their first four matches, Kuwait SC lost both on matchday five and six in the group stage despite the presence of almost their first-choice team.
Clearly, this side doesn’t enjoy scenarios where they don’t have to win. The Kuwait club has also had disciplinary problems with three sending offs in their last five matches and so they have to be careful as any numerical disadvantage in this tie could prove to be decisive.
Kuwait SC have been there done and that but must produce the goods once more to both keep their hopes alive of retaining the AFC Cup and avoid one of the biggest upsets in the competition’s history.
East Bengal: WDLWL
East Bengal have been inconsistent under Falopa but would be banking on their perfect home record in this year’s AFC Cup. However, they have only won two of their 23 matches against West Asian opposition in this tournament with just one victory on home soil against Yemen’s Al Ahli in 2008.
Kuwait SC: WWWWW
The Kuwait club’s perfect recent form tells us everything about their quality and consistency. Kuwait SC are also unbeaten on their travels to India with one win and a draw in two matches. The last time they were beaten by two goals or more in 90 minutes was in the 2011 AFC Cup when they were thumped 5-1 by Saudi Arabia’s Al Ettifaq.
Experienced goalkeeper Abhijit Mondal is expected to keep his place in the team despite the error that led to Dempo’s second goal last week. Young Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has paid the price for his mistakes against Semen Padang and Kuwait SC and Falopa would be hoping for a flawless display from Abhijit, who has played in AFC Cup semi-finals before with Dempo.
The big surprise could be at rightback as 22-year-old Abhishek Das could start instead of Naoba Singh who had a nightmare outing against Dempo and was poor in the first leg against Kuwait SC also. The experienced Harmanjot Khabra is also an option in that position but Falopa is likely to opt for the inexperienced Abhishek, who unlike Khabra is a natural right back.
The rest of the team picks itself with Joaquim Abranches expected to start in right midfield but it will be interesting to see whether Edeh Chidi and James Moga both start together upfront or if Chidi plays in a withdrawn role so that East Bengal don’t get outnumbered in midfield.
Kuwait SC coach Ion is expected to retain the same midfield and attack from the first leg with Abdullah Al Buraiki at the top of the diamond in midfield supporting forwards Rogerinho and Issam Jemaa. But there could be a couple of changes in defence.
Sami Al Sanea looked brilliant going forward but was badly exposed defensively by Lalrindika Ralte in the second half of the first leg and thus he could make way for Fahad Awadh.
There is a slight injury worry with central defender Hussain Hakem so Fahad Hamoud could be given a starting berth especially after his timely brace in the 4-3 win over Al Salmiyah last Friday.
Midfielder Fahad Al Enezi is also the notable absentee from the squad due to injury. Due to the unfamiliarity with the artificial turf, Ion might make early substitutions in the second half so the likes of Abdulhadi Khamis and Ali Al Kandari could play a key role if needed.
Possible XI: Musab Alkandari; Fahad Awadh, Hussain Ali Baba, Fahad Hamoud, Jarah Al Ateeqi; Shereedah Al Shereedah, Waleed Ali, Chadi Hammami, Abdullah Al Buraiki; Rogerinho, Issam Jemaa.
Player To Watch
East Bengal – Edeh Chidi
East Bengal need Chidi to perform
Photo Credit: WSG
East Bengal’s top scorer last season has netted only once in the last five games but has looked a threat in all the AFC Cup knockout games and will be determined to add to his tally of six in this competition especially after the penalty miss against Dempo.
If Chidi performs, East Bengal have every chance of causing an upset.
Kuwait SC – Issam Jemaa
Issam Jemaa bagged a brace in the first leg
Photo Credit: WSG
Tunisia’s all-time highest scorer is almost certain to finish as this season’s AFC Cup top scorer with 15 goals already.
Next month might turn out to be the most special of his career as he could both win his second AFC Cup and qualify for the 2014 World Cup. But the first of those targets requires a good display from Jemaa in this game.