Manipur’s Neroca FC, who ran a fairytale debut campaign last season, are all set to renew their love affair with the I-League as they get ready to host Kolkata giants East Bengal at the Khuman Lumpak stadium on Saturday.
The game will be the second of the 12th I-League edition and both teams look equally balanced on paper, with both outfits having Spanish coaches locking horns for the initial bragging rights, as a fresh season beckons.
Neroca almost pulled off a sensational debut title win last season before finishing an honourable second, while East Bengal could only manage a fourth-place finish at the end of a nerve-wracking final day where four teams had a chance at the title before Minerva Punjab clinched the crown.
The home side, besides bringing in Spaniard Manuel Fraile, who helped Aizawl win the Mizoram Premier League three years ago, have also managed to retain the nucleus of the side from last season, while bolstering it with a few top foreign signings.
Prominent among them is the tireless Japanese winger Katsumi Yusa, who has gained immense popularity among the fans in India with his energetic displays.
Also, Brazilian Eduardo Ferreira, a rock-solid defender who has played with distinction with both the Kolkata giants and who, like Katsumi, will be up against his former team on Saturday.
In attack, Neroca will feel fortunate to have Nigerian striker Felix Odili Chidi and winger Singham Subash Singh. The duo had 11 goals between them in the last edition.
Australian Aryn Williams has also been retained from last year and brings a lot of maturity in midfield.
Veteran custodian and captain Lalit Thapa should be a safe house guarding the Neroca goal, but Italian Mauro Boerchio’s presence in the goalkeeping quartet, someone who was with coach Fraile in Mongolia, suggests Thapa might face tough competition.
Coach Fraile seemed undaunted at the prospect of facing East Bengal, sounding positive at the pre-match press conference when asked about their opponent’s pre-season in Malaysia.
“We are a small club with a big heart. Every team has their own training methods. I am here to win every match and feel at the moment Neroca is the best team in the world,” he said.
Given their stature in Indian football, East Bengal’s desperation to win the tournament is not surprising.
They have also roped in a Spanish coach, Alejandro Menendez Garcia and had a very successful pre-season under him in Malaysia where they won three matches and drew one.
Coach Garcia has also had immense success in Thailand and China and would be looking to help the Red and Golds break their I-League jinx.
He has a highly talented squad of players at his disposal to help him achieve that dream. In goal, Garcia has options between Rakshit Dagar, Mirshad and Ubaid C.K., all of whom have had their days under the bar.
Then there is the trio of Bali Gagandeep (forward), Senegalese Kassim Aidara (midfield) and Kamalpreet (defender) secured from defending champions Minerva Punjab FC.
The two Ralte’s — Laldanmawia and Lalrindika — will look to marshall the midfield along with Aidara and local boy Yami Longwah.
However, the two trump cards up Garcia’s sleeve will undoubtedly be Mexican striker Enrique Esqueda and Costa Rican defender Johnny Acosta.
While Acosta, who played all the three group matches for his country in this year’s FIFA World Cup Finals, will be only the second footballer in India currently to have played in a senior FIFA World Cu.
Esqueda’s credentials seem even more impressive.
The striker has not only played in the Copa America for his country but has the distinction of scoring goals against clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan and Manchester City in competitive international club football.
For East Bengal to fulfil their I-League dreams they will surely have to score many goals and Esqueda might just be the answer to that problem.