Kolkata, (IANS): Deprived of preparation due to unavailability of key footballers, hosts West Bengal will begin their title defence in not the most ideal manner when they take on Manipur in the Santosh Trophy final round Group A opener here on Monday.
In another Group A match on the same day, Chandigarh will take on former champions Kerala at the Rabindra Sarovar Stadium.
Bengal, who have won the title a record 32 times, did not get to train with five of its key players, including forward Jiten Murmu who is also the captain.
Murmu, and a few others, ply their trade for Mohammedan Sporting SC who are currently taking part in the Second Dvision League. Previously, they were part of the century- old club's Steel Express Football Tournament in Chakradharpur, Jharkhand, last month.
Bengal will also miss four players who have returned to represent their employers Railways in a Inter-Railway tournament, while another is indisposed.
As a result, Bengal were forced to ring in five changes from the squad who qualified by from East Zone by winning their two Group B matches against Chhattisgarh (2-0) and Jharkhand (2-0) in Patna.
"I am not thinking anything negative now. There is no point. Yes preparation was not ideal but now we have to put our best foot forward," Bengal coach Ranjan Chowdhury told IANS after practice before their match at the Howrah Stadium.
Chowdhury said he had requested the Indian Football Association (IFA), the state's parent body, for the players and support staff to stay together in a hotel accommodation.
"We are staying together in a hotel now. I had asked for it as off the field bonding is very important and reflects on the field as well. These players haven't spent a lot of time together and therefore staying together is all the more important," he added.
In one-time champions Manipur, Bengal will have a tough cookie first up. The spur of talented footballers coming out from the state in recent years makes them a formidable unit always and their pace on the flanks will always be a cause of worry for the hosts.
In the other tie of the day, Kerala, who last win the competition in 2004-05 season, will start as favourites against Chandigarh. Kerala came closest to bagging another crown in 2012-13 season but Services prevailed in the tie-breaker.
Chandigarh can take inspiration from their home side Minerva Punjab FC defying all odds to recently clinch the I-League title.
In the other group, Goa, Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab and Karnataka will fight it out for a place in the semifinal. The final is slated for April 1.
Ten teams who qualified from the preliminary stages have been divided into two groups of five teams each with the top two from each group advancing to the semifinals which are to be played on March 30.
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