GUWAHATI, Jan 2: Lajong FC will look for a slice of history while East Bengal aim to regain the crown after two years when they take on each other in the final of the Federation Cup football tournament on Sunday.
An AFC Cup berth is also at stake in the summit clash at the Nehru Stadium which is likely to be full to the brim with most of the crowd coming from Shillong, the home of Lajong.
For East Bengal, a win on Sunday will be their sixth triumph, their latest being in 2007 in Ludhiana but more than that the title would be a huge boost to their sagging fortunes after a string of disastrous results starting from the Durand Cup debacle in September last year.
On the other hand, Lajong can become the first team from the North East to be crowned winners of the country’s top league-cum-knockout tournament, that too in their debut season.
East Bengal had not been in the best of form during the group matches in Silchar but they peaked in the semi-final on December 31 when they beat arch-rivals and defending champions Mohun Bagan 2-0 to take sweet revenge of last year’s semi-final loss via penalty shootout.
Lajong are on a high after beating title favourites Dempo in the group stage and I-League champions Churchill Brothers in the semi-final. They will also not be overawed by their more fancied rivals as they had beaten the Kolkata giants in the Durand Cup in New Delhi.
The Shillong side though will be missing at least three key players in captain Aibor Khongjee due to injury and two foreign recruits in James Giblee and Daniel Bedemi due to double bookings.
Bedemi, who joined Lajong from Chirag United this season, has been rock-solid in Lajong defence, stopping the likes of Odafe Onyeka Okolie and Sunil Chhetri and it would be interesting how he combats the likes of Yusif Yakubu and Bhaichung Bhutia. East Bengal defence have not conceded a single goal in the tournament but Uga Okpara and Nirmal Chhetri will surely be tested by in-form Lajong strikers Sheikhohao Tuboi and Anil Gurung.
Lajong coach Stanely Rosario has reconciled to the missing of key players but said his side as underdogs in the tournament has nothing to lose.
“Missing some key players is a big worry. But we will have to handle it. It is a big match and a lot of expectations are there. We have nothing to lose. The boys have done a fantastic job so far in the tournament and they have showed what they can do,” Rosario said.
Rosario’s counterpart Philipe De Ridder felt his side could benefit from the absence of key players from their rivals’ line up but said it would boil down to which side plays better football on Sunday.
“Lajong are not having their foreign players and so I think we are in a little advantage. But they are a good side with fighting spirit. But it’s all about who plays better tomorrow,” the Belgian, who replaced Bhowmick after the derby loss to Mohun Bagan in October said.
It will also be interesting to see how De Ridder uses his star striker and national captain Bhaichung Bhutia. Bhutia has played less than 30 minutes in two matches in the tournament but have scored a crucial goal.
He missed the first two group matches as he was not fully recovered from his hamstring injury. In the last group match against JCT, he came in from the bench in the 75th minute to score the winning goal to take his side to the semi-final. Against his former club Mohun Bagan in the semi-final, Bhutia set up the second goal scored by Mehtab Hussain. PTI