The night is the darkest before dawn. East Bengal fans have learnt it the hard way. The Indian Super League club finished at the bottom of the league in the 2021-22 season and has remained in the bottom three in every season since 2020.
Its arch-rival, on the other hand, has won the Indian Super League title and every Kolkata derby since 2019 until the last season. Manchester United vibes? Pretty much.
But the 2023-24 season has seen a silver lining. The club has brought in a fresh batch of players and an ISL-winning coach in Carles Cuadrat.
At first glance, Cuadrat appears to be just a tourist in the City of Joy – a black shirt, a tall frame, broken English and a trite love for ‘India and its culture’. But when he speaks, it’s mostly football.
“I really know a lot of players there and also the coaches. I know the story behind it, and I’m ready to see the evolution of all of that,” he had told Sportstar before his return to India.
Being at the helm at East Bengal now, he looks to be doing just that, adding brick by brick to take the club back to its glory days.
The Red and Gold Brigade has razed the aura of Mohun Bagan Super Giant – a team worth double that of East Bengal – in the first Kolkata derby under his charge, qualified for the Durand Cup knockouts as the group-topper and will now be playing in the tournament’s final after 19 years.
The banners in the stands of Kanteerave Stadium used to once read, “Lead us, Carles.” The prodigal son of Spain has now returned to do just that with a new team.
Cuadrat, a La Masia product, comes from the same school of football as Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi. He has also worked with the manager who gave Messi his senior debut, Frank Rijkaard in his initial days of coaching.
But he peaked with his tandem with fellow Spaniard Albert Roca, with the two winning the Federation Cup and leading the side to the ISL and AFC Cup final – being the first club to reach the latter.
Though Roca left, Cuadrat, now as head coach, took the Blues to greater heights, winning their maiden ISL title – their only one so far.
Indian national team centre-back Rahul Bheke, who was one of Cuadrat’s trusted custodians at the back for Bengaluru FC, looks back at his impact off the field.
“He (Cuadrat) is a very tactically sound coach. Whenever a team plays against him, he works a lot on the tactical side of it and set-pieces. He is a specialist in set pieces. He knows when, where and how set-pieces should be planned and where goals can be scored through them,” he told Sportstar.
“He makes a team’s defence very strong. So, when I used to play under him, we kept around 11 clean sheets and also maintained an unbeaten run. So, he insists a lot on not conceding a goal and also to maintain possession.”
At East Bengal, too, the Spaniard has stuck to his forte – creating a team that is menacing in set-pieces. In the eight goals scored by East Bengal and another ruled offside, six of them have found the net from set-pieces.
Cuadrat has overseen the growth of several young Indian players while his transfer strategy has seen Bengaluru become a title-winning side.
In his five-year stay at Bengaluru FC, initially as an assistant coach and then as head coach, Cuadrat welcomed players such as Xisco Hernández, Juanan and Miku – all of whom proved to be instrumental in winning the ISL, while the last two also won the Super Cup.
Some of the Indian young players that he honed as head coach – Suresh Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan and Prabhsukhan Gill – have become very successful players for India.
“Scouting is very important. A club with a long history needs to be very good at scouting and to be good at data. I think that it’s the future of football,” Cuadrat had told Sporstar in an earlier interview.
“All the teams need to be working for the future in that way and try to get players in the right moment. It’s always about who is the faster team to sign the new talent.”
East Bengal, too, has utilised his talent to scout players judiciously. The team has made 15 new signings (loan and permanent transfers), and the nucleus of the team has been built around them.
Jordan Elsey and Javier Siverio have been the usual suspects in and around the box for set pieces, while Saul Crespo has been the midfield architect with the long and through balls. It was his through ball that was finished expertly by Nandhakumar Sekar to hand East Bengal a win in the Kolkata derby in the group stage.
Cuadrat has reunited with Gill as his goalkeeper, while Nandha, another new signing, and Naorem Mahesh Singh have been entrusted with the duty of attacking through the flanks.
The signings of veterans as full-backs have worked like a charm with Harmanjot Khabra and Mandar Rao Desai, combining well with Mahesh and Nandha for wing-play and securing the back on time.
The team, playing in a 4-2-3-1 shape has also gotten quicker in transitions than last season, and it is one of the six ISL teams to start its first-team squad in the tournament. The same strategy – the same bunch of players playing more games – saw Bengaluru win the title last season and make its way to the ISL final.
“We always have been talking about Indian football, and the points are always the same. It’s about to make a bigger calendar there with longer competitions, so at least there are around 40 games per season. It’s an average number that gives you at least 11 months of competition,” Cuadrat said.
Learning from mistakes
East Bengal had started the tournament with two quick goals in the first half against the Bangladesh Army Football Team. But in the second half, it conceded cheaply in the last three minutes of regulation time.
Cuadrat looked visibly upset that his team dropped two points. And that mistake never happened throughout the tournament.
East Bengal beat the ISL Champion and the I-League Champion, Punjab FC, in the remaining group-stage matches to secure its spot in the quarterfinals.
With a penalty-shootout win against NorthEast United on penalties, Cuadrat’s boys would know how fine a margin it is between a win and a loss in the final.
And the team on the other side, again, is Mohun Bagan.
The boy from the land of red and yellow will lead his boys in the same colours in a country miles apart. But he has struck silverware in his maiden season here before. Sunday’s match might just show whether he can do it again.