I-League: East Bengal raring to come all guns blazing at Shillong Lajong
On a roll after a hat-trick of wins, title contenders East Bengal will be eyeing to continue their winning momentum when they take on wooden spooners Shillong Lajong in a 15th round I-League encounter here Thursday. With table leaders Chennai City dropping two crucial points after NEROCA's coming-from-behind draw at Imphal, the Kolkata heavyweights' title march is very much on course as they are in the pack with 28 points from 14 games.
East Bengal will also find themselves with fresh legs as they got a week long break after their February 10 away match against Real Kashmir in Srinagar was postponed to February 28, following a heavy snowfall. That East Bengal are slated to play three back-to-back home matches in the revised schedule before travelling to Kashmir and Minerva Punjab will make the scenario more interesting as the Alejandro Menéndez's team look to remain focus and bag maximum points from the games.
"We have to think positive and enjoy every game. The most important thing is that everybody in the team enjoys their game and tries to achieve success," the Spaniard said at the match-eve news conference. "I think the speed of a match is always important. And now as we are advancing in the league all the teams are playing with great speed not only with the ball but also off the ball. You have to operate really fast."
East Bengal have also showed superb resilience as was in their last match when a fully-fit Enrique Esqueda headed in a brace to see them fight back from behind to down NEROCA. In sizzling form, the 30-year-old Mexican will continue to carry on his good work, even as he may miss Jaime Santos (neck injury) alongside him in the starting XI.
Against NEROCA, Menéndez had fielded an unchanged side who had blanked Mohun Bagan 2-0 in the derby but keeping in mind of the tight schedule ahead the coach may have to tweak his line-up a bit. "I still don't know who will start tomorrow against Shillong Lajong. It is a problem for me to choose 11 players but it is a good problem to have," the coach said.
The visitors are placed at the bottom of the table with 10 points from 15 matches, but the young outfit's back-to-back wins over defending champions Minerva Punjab (away) and title-contenders Churchill Brothers (home) will make them a strong challengers. Youngsters like Mahesh Singh, Sheen Sohktung, Rakesh Pradhan, Samuel Lyngdoh have ably marshalled by captain Samuel Lalmuanpuia have shown great creativity to score some of the well-constructed goals of the league.
The 19-year-old Mahesh is in sublime form having scored the winner against the defending champions at Panchkula. And, in their last match the youngster slotted home from the edge of the box late in 83rd minute to script a thrilling 3-2 win, giving Churchill a big jolt to their title aspiration.
"We have to give the opponents maximum respect. They are a young team but they have many good players," the East Bengal coach said. Menéndez however has done his homework well and said Shillong Lajong love to keep possession of the ball and they are doing it well.
"They put many players in the central zone and play several combinations of passes. Also, they have to very fast strikers and are good at counter attacks." Buoyed by the two wins, Shillong coach Alison Kharsyntiew said they have the belief to beat any team.
"But East Bengal will be a difficult challenge. We hope to give our best for three points. We have to defend well individually," Kharsyntiew said. "Our main strength is teamwork. We have played well and scored many goals so I hope tomorrow my boys score goals and play well.
"Our strategy is to play attacking football and bank on teamwork. If we can play as a team we can beat any team," Alison said.
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