Kolkata, Feb 23 (IANS) Contenders East Bengal will look to making up lost ground in the title race when they take on in-form Chennai City FC in a crucial I-League encounter at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan here on Saturday.
The hosts are placed third in the points table having 26 points from 15 matches — five adrift of shock league leaders Neroca FC, who are on 31 points but have played two games more.
Neroca’s final engagement is against East Bengal on March 8 here.
Second-placed Minerva Punjab FC, also a surprise package, have played 15 games and are on 29 points.
A win for the hosts on Saturday will help them pip Minerva on better head-to-head record. Earlier this month, the Punjab outfit lost to the city giants 0-1 and in the first meeting the two teams were locked 2-2 at Barasat.
East Bengal had a golden opportunity against Gokulam Kerala FC in their last game to strengthen their claim in the three-horse title race.
But a stunning 1-2 reversal dented their hopes before Minerva also lost to giant-killers Gokulam and Neroca were dealt a 2-3 blow by Mohun Bagan in Imphal, opening up the contest yet again.
“We have three more matches to go. We want to take it match by match. We will show our spirit, we will show our guts, we will show our football,” East Bengal midfielder Yusa Katsumi told reporters on the eve of the match.
Talking about East Bengal’s barren run in the league (National Football League and I-League combined), Katsumi said the onus is on the players to break the jinx.
“It has been 15 years without a trophy (for us). I would say 15 years’ pressure is on us. I’ve to take this pressure, I cannot avoid it,” the Japanese playmaker said.
East Bengal have been without the league title since winning the NFL in the 2003-04 season which was rechristened as the I-League in 2007.
East Bengal have leaked late goals in the last few matches. Katsumi accepted the blame and urged his teammates to stay focused as a unit.
“Of course, we conceded a lot because of some mistakes. It’s a team. We have to stay focused, very important is team work. We have to stay focused for 90 minutes. We must help each other and help the team,” he said.
As for the visitors, Chennai will come into the tie high on confidence after getting past Churchill Brothers and wriggling out of the drop zone.
Against Churchill Brothers, Aleksandar Rakic opened the scoring in the 26th minute before Michael Soosairaj scored a brace with both goals coming off goalkeeping gaffes.
All eyes will be on Soosairaj who has been a revelation this season and East Bengal defenders will know all too well that he is a threat.
“Their forward and midfield are strong. They have a player, maybe from Korea (Kim Dong-hyeon) who is a good player. They are not under pressure. They have survived relegation. They don’t carry any baggage,” Katsumi said of his opponents.
The last time the two sides met, East Bengal won 2-1 in Chennai.