A young Arambagh Krira Sangha outfit will fight for the club's first ever Independence Cup title while the national player-dominated Chittagong Abahani Limited will be looking forward to retaining the title as another crowd-less final of the season-ending professional tournament is all set to kick-off at Bangabandhu National Stadium in Dhaka Saturday afternoon.
The spirited Arambagh side will be led by treble-winning head coach Maruful Haque, on whose guidance the players made notable transformation to make their debut Independence Cup final appearance. Maruful's coaching disciple Zulfikar Mahmud Mintu, who will be in the Chittagong Abahani dug-out as head coach, appeared alert on the eve of the final, despite having many national players in his big-budget squad.
Bangladesh's only Uefa-A licensed coach Maruful has many professional tournament titles to his name with different star-studded sides, including the historic treble at Sheikh Russel Krira Chakra four seasons ago, but Mintu has none to his credit.
"I didn't want to get involved in club coaching this season but Arambagh requested me to guide their youth-led side and it was convincing for me to accept the offer after seeing the talents of the young players," said Maruful during the pre-final press conference at BFF House yesterday afternoon, less than half-an-hour before their final practice session.
"There was enough facility at the club. They implemented my suggestion by introducing GPS System for the cost of Tk10 lakhs. The GPS system helped me to know the actual fitness level of the players, whether one is capable of running for 90 minutes or not. The players had the chance to improve and they did it by outpacing the top four premier league sides so far to reach the final," he added.
Arambagh had to face premier league champion Abahani Limited, runners-up Lt. Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi Club and big-spending sides Saif Sporting Club and Chittagong Abahani from the group stage to the semi-final but managed to come out with flying colour on each occasion. They registered a stunning 4-1 win against double winner Abahani. Still, Maruful admitted that his team are still "pre-mature" and when asked as to how his side can outrun their final opponent and the reigning champion, he replied confidently, "Anything is possible in 90 minutes. The gap between the two clubs can be covered with our confidence and fitness level. If the players carry on their form in the final, they will be the champion."
Chittagong Abahani coach Mintu only has an AFC-C license but has a long coaching career as an assistant, most notably alongside Maruful for three different sides, chief among them at Sheikh Russel. The former Abahani footballer also played under Maruful in the 2001-02 season for Badda Jagoroni. Mintu was promoted to interim head coach after the club sacked Saiful Bari Titu with two matches left in the league.
"I have been involved with this club since 2016. I know the players well. The players were mentally and physically tired due to long season, followed by the AFC Cup ties. I tried to motivate them and they tried their best to reach the final. Arambagh have the best coach of the country. They are spirited and their young players have quality. Our players are also ready to resist the force," said Mintu.
Meanwhile at the pre-final presser, BFF senior vice-president Abdus Salam Murshedy said they are happy with the performance of the local players after omitting foreign players from the tournament. Murshedy, also the professional league committee chairman, though admitted their failure to attract audience to the stadium throughout the competition.
Sitting just beside Murshedy, Maruful wanted to point out a positive side of not having crowd at the gallery. He feared it might create pressure upon the young players. But sitting beside the head coach, answering to the same question, Arambagh in-form forward and captain Abu Sufian Sufil said confidently, "It doesn't matter for a player whether there is crowd or not, rather it is the choice of the players whether they take crowd as pressure or not." Sufil added, "This is my first time at the press-conference. We also reached the final of the Federation Cup last time but we were not as happy as we are now, it is because of the continuous inspiration from our coach."