Neroca FC and East Bengal clash in Imphal on Saturday in I-League top draw
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 which saw Minerva Punjab clinched the title
A new coach at the helm of affairs to usher in a style of football different from last year, Neroca FC face heavyweights East Bengal in their opening match of the I-League here on Saturday.
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 which saw Minerva Punjab clinched the coveted crown.
Both teams look equally balanced on paper and both outfits, having Spanish coaches, will lock horns at Imphal's Khuman Lumpak stadium for the initial bragging rights, as a fresh season begins.
The home side have brought in Spaniard Manuel Fraile, who was earlier with Aizawl FC three years ago, as head coach while retaining the nucleus of the side from last season.
Neroca have signed a few foreign players, prominent among them being the tireless Japanese winger Katsumi Yusa, who was earlier with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Besides Katsumi, Brazilian defender Eduardo Ferreira, Neroca's another signing, will also be up against his former team on Saturday.
In attack, Neroca still have striker Felix Odili Chidi and winger Singham Subash Singh who had 11 goals between them in the last edition. Australian Aryn Williams is also 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 a tough competition.
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.
East Bengal have also roped in a Spanish coach in Alejandro Menendez Garcia and had a very successful pre-season under him in Malaysia where they won three matches and drew one. Garcia has also had immense success in Thailand and China and would be looking to help the Red & Golds from Kolkata break their I-League jinx.
At the goal, Garcia has options between Rakshit Dagar, Mirshad and Ubaid CK, 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) who were secured from defending champions Minerva Punjab. The two Raltes -- Laldanmawia and Lalrindika -- will look to martial 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 who played all three group matches for his country in the World Cup Finals in Russia.
Esqueda has not only played in the Copa America but has the distinction of scoring goals against clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan and Manchester City in competitive international club football.
"We are very confident before tomorrow's match. We know that we can win the match. This is a very difficult opening but we hope to get three points," Garcia said.
He also disclosed that Syrian midfielder Mahmoud Al-Amna has not travelled to Imphal due to personal reasons.
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