Even as the scheduling of matches in hot and humid conditions has drawn sharp criticism, top four teams of the I-League are ready to tussle in the semifinals of the Federation Cup football tournament at the Barabati Stadium here on Sunday.
The coaches' man management skills have been put through a stern test due to the harsh weather as the semifinalists, which will play their fourth match in a week, are facing the challenge of preserving their players.
I-League champion Aizawl FC will take on Bengaluru FC in the afternoon, while title holder Mohun Bagan, which finished second in the League, will meet East Bengal in a mouthwatering Kolkata derby under the lights.
It will be the fourth derby of the season and perhaps the most crucial one. Incidentally, the last derby in the tournament was played at the same venue in 2010, when East Bengal had beaten Bagan 1-0 in the final.
A well-balanced Bagan, which had struggled against smaller sides in the League, sent a strong message by winning two matches against DSK Shivajians and Shillong Lajong FC and drawing against Bengaluru FC in the group stage.
East Bengal, which had tumultuous season with coach Trevor Morgan resigning midway through the League due to the slump in performance, will be equally hungry to prove a point.
East Bengal, which drew with Churchill Brothers and Aizawl and won against Chennai City FC, will have to examine the injury of its defender Ivan Bukenya before finalising the final XI.
Bengaluru suffered a huge setback as its captain and main attacker Sunil Chhetri picked up a leg muscle injury midway through its match against Bagan on Friday. He will miss the semifinal.
Bengaluru coach Albert Roca was furious with the scheduling, as it could affect other players as well. His team, which managed a win over Shillong, would like to stop the dream journey of Aizawl and try book a berth in the AFC Cup by winning the title.
With the keen desire to make it a rare double, Aizawl, which gave some fabulous performances as it beat Chennai and Churchill, will rely on its self-belief and tactical excellence. It has to cope with the heat while playing its first day match.
The only worry for Aizawl, which had an extra day's break like East Bengal, is the fitness of defender Ashutosh Mehta.
Since the final is some days away, the last-four stage should present high-intensity clashes.
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