| East Bengal’s Mike Okoro beats Ryan D’Souza of Salgaocar in an aerial duel during their Durand Cup semi-final encounter in New Delhi on Wednesday. (PTI)
New Delhi: Lady luck smiled on East Bengal Wednesday as they edged out Salgaocar Sports Club, Goa 1-0 to enter the final of the 115th Pepsi Durand Cup. Nigerian striker Mike Okoro was at his opportunistic best scoring the match-winner in the 79th minute. It is East Bengal’s 24th entry in the final. The last time was in 1999, when they lost 2-3 to Salgaocar in the penalties.
In the final on Friday, they will play Army XI.
It was a defensive lapse that allowed Okoro to clinch the issue for the Calcutta giants. But they came very close to surrendering the lead in injury time, but Sunday Seah’s header off a Jatin Bisht cross struck the crosspiece.
East Bengal, playing 3-5-1-1, relied on quick counter attacks to create openings. K. Kulothungan and Okoro were used as split strikers, with the latter as the lone front runner. However, he did not get too much feed from the midfielders and was tightly marked by Prashant Jaggi and Nigerian left back Bello Rasaq.
Salgaocar enjoyed territorial domination but failed to create too many openings in front of the tight defensive organisation of the opposition comprising Arun Malhotra, Subashish Roy Chowdhury and Douglas de Silva. Subashish and Douglas shadowed Sunday throughout the match and allowed him little leeway.
It was a battle of attrition in midfield and the East Bengal playmakers Malswamtluanga and Kulothungan were denied space and time by the sheer commitment of Salgaocar’s junior international Bungo Singh and Jatin Bisht. Chandan Das and Sasthi Duley worked tirelessly, but were rarely creative.
In the first half both teams had one shot each at the goal. With the match five minutes old and the East Bengal defence still tentative, Salgaocar’s right midfielder Denis Cabral shot goalwards from close but V.P. Satish Kumar saved well. Sunday headed the rebound but Malhotra cleared. Five minutes later, Okoro and Malsawmtlunga exchanged passes on the right to split the Salgaocar defence. Okoro miscued his shot.
Early in the second session, Bungo’s cross from the left was headed goalwards by Sunday but Satish was up to the task. In the 66th minute, Sasthi Duley and Malswamtluanga combined well and the latter dribbled past stopper back Covan Lawrence but shot straight to goalkeeper Juje Siddi.
The goal came from a misunderstanding between Jaggi and Siddi. The ’keeper grabbed at the ball only to drop it, and Okoro hovering about, pounced on to flick it in.
‘Luck was with us’
A visibly relieved East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick said after the match: “I am not happy with the performance, but it’s the result that matters. We had champions luck, which is crucial for winning a major tournament.”
Explaining his game plan, Bhowmick said: “We have as many as eight players unavailable, so 3-5-1-1 was the best possible formation.”
He also added that he had no option but to resort to counter-attacks. Complimenting Salgaocar, he added: “They are the most organised team in the country, and with our limited strength, quick counter attacks were the best option available.” He did admit that his attackers got isolated and got little support from midfield.
A crestfallen Salgaocar coach Savio Madeira felt that luck was not on their side. “We controlled most of the game but could not create enough chances and conceded a soft goal,” he said.
East Bengal: V.P. Satish Kumar; Surya Bikash Chakraborty, Arun Malhotra, Subashish Roy Chowdhury; Y. Raju Singh, S. Malswamtluanga (Amjad Ali 85), Chandan Das, Douglas de Silva, Shasthy Duley; K. Kulothungan (Trijit Das 71); Mike Okoro.
Salgaocar: Juje Siddi; Ryan D’Souza, Prashant Jaggi, Covan Lawrence, Bello Rasaq; Denis Cabral (Bernard Pires 68), Jatin Bisht, Bungo Singh, Dharamjit Singh, Sunday Seah, Samson Singh (Alex Ambrose 80).
Referee: Ashokan (SSCB).