ONE WIN CAN CHANGE everything.
Both at the bottom and the top of the I-League table, the title and relegation races are going through weekly twists; if one falters, someone else takes over.
Mohun Bagan, with 21 points from 9 matches, remain unbeaten this season. But even they can't relax for a bit. Their arch rivals East Bengal are sitting at the top with 24 points from 11 matches and unless Mohun Bagan keep winning they cannot stay in the title race.
But while the Mariners are boosted by their 100% home win record, they are bothered by the fact that of the last 5 away matches they have played in I-League and AFC Cup, they won only one and drew the other 4.
And to make matters harder for them, Churchill Brothers, who after their win against Bengaluru FC went 5 games without victory, came back swinging and beat DSK Shivajians 3-0 in their previous game. The team seems to be improving under new head coach Derrick Pereira and they are good at home; in the last 3 games at the Tilak Maidan they have netted 9 goals.
The Mariners are facing the lone Goan side in their backyard at a time when their main goal getters Wolfe, Kromah and Brandon Ferandes are in peak form. Granted, in a player by player they don't hold up to the collective threat Sony, Katsumi, Duffy and Jeje pose on the Churchill defence but Pereira with Goan teams has been successful against greater odds in the past.
And Sanjoy Sen's Bagan side has always had a tough time in Goa. In the last 2 seasons they have been held or beaten by Sporting Clube de Goa, which were major blows to their title aspirations. The extra humidity and the stare of a much more direct sun seems to affect the team a lot. Although on that front a slight respite has come from the fact that they are playing the match at 7 pm, which is early evening here at Vasco da Gama; with the heat slightly reduced.
Sen would take extra courage from the fact that his striker Darryl Duffy has spent many a years living in Goa so he knows the condition well. After sitting out in the AFC Cup playoffs against Club Valencia, Duffy is a well rested player who is raring to go in what is virtually a homecoming match for him.
If East Bengal happen to falter in their away match against Shillong Lajong, Bagan will have a chance to catch up with them in the league table with a game or two in hand. But here, Churchill Brothers, who have found a new offensive style of play under Pereira, can make their life difficult.
With just one win, Churchill Brothers have moved up to the 8th place in the table, with 9 points from 11 matches, leaving Mumbai FC on the dreaded relegation spot. A point from this game will be incredibly significant in the relegation race; and it will be a huge boost to the morale of the players and fans.
The strategy for Churchill should be simple; double mark on Sony Norde, physical gameplay against Katsumi and Jeje to effectively cut off supply to Duffy and hammer away at the Bagan midfield through the middle, which will be slightly weakened due to the absence of the intimidating Pronay Halder. Mohun Bagan have shown a tendency to get frustrated if they do not score early on, so the first 30 minutes will be the most crucial time for Perreira's boys; if they can hold their own during that time, their chances of victory increases manifolds. The weather will also have an adverse effect on most Bagan players, and the last 15 minutes will be a test for them to keep up with the home team's pace.
And even if Bagan score early, Churchill have shown they are capable of coming all-out in retaliatory attacks, as they did against Minerva Punjab. But it would be unwise to do so against Mohun Bagan. If Minerva could beat the 5-4 in a slugfest, Bagan can do worse.
Either way, it will likely be a chess match where Sanjoy Sen will play his usual game; and Derrick Pereira will have the onus to make his special moves to derail the visiting team's gameplay.
With around 50 traveling fans due to reach Vasco by tomorrow morning, this game has the potential of living up to the classic contests these two iconic clubs have had on this very ground.
Churchill Borthers' recent performance has already sparked interest among the locals, and their home attendance is slowly on the rise. Who knows, a good show against Bagan can give the people of Vasco da Gama a taste of the old time leagues that used to fill up Tilak Maidan with energized, enthusiastic faces; and the fledging Goan club can re-ignite some of that trademark prideful passion working class Goans used to bring to the I-League games in the past.