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Triumph of fitness, spirit and unflinching self-belief
Sasthi Duley played a silent but crucial role on the left

The scoreboard doesn’t always truly reflect the nature of a contest. Thursday’s ASEAN Club Championship semi-final was one such match. While the scoreboard will show East Bengal beat Petrokimia Putra 8-7 in sudden death after regulation time ended 1-1, it will not state that the Indonesian champions were fortunate to avoid a real, good hammering.

It was a triumph of the attention Subhas Bhowmick had paid to fitness and also of the spirit of his wards who never for a moment thought they would lose this match. East Bengal’s superior physical condition was evident in the pace at which they operated in the second half and in the way they held fort with ten men for nearly 35 minutes against the home team.

East Bengal would have cursed their luck had the ball rolled the other way in the penalty shootout. The match should never have gone beyond 90 minutes and 3-1 or 4-1 in favour of the red-and-golds would have been the right score. They toyed with Petrokimia in the second half. The Indonesian club, with three Brazilian recruits, didn’t know what hit them and had no clue to how to defend. Rarely in the last 15 years has an Indian club showed such command over a club from a country rated higher than India in Fifa rankings.

Sur Kumar Singh was menacing down the right and it would be unfair to overlook the silent and crucial role played by Sasthi Duley on the left. While the Manipur strongman rocked Petrokimia with his power and thrust, the diminutive Duley was clever and subtle. He was always there as a winger when East Bengal attacked and fell back each time the defenders looked for his help.

The most remarkable feature of Thursday’s match was the attitude shown by East Bengal. They looked determined, almost arrogant, that they couldn’t lose to this team. It is tough to keep a home team at bay for over half an hour with ten players. Even during that period, the air of confidence and faith was distinct in their body language. During the penalties they were calm and composed. The gestures, after each conversion, were testimony to this self-belief.

It was scrappy start by East Bengal, though. They needed a while to settle down and fathom the intensity of the challenge from the unknown, but even well after that, they didn’t show the characteristic verve. They conceded a silly goal during this phase and there was tension at the East Bengal goalmouth on more occasions in the first half. After resumption, as I have already noted, the story changed for good.

Bhowmick’s tactical wisdom came to the fore with his team under serious pressure. Mahesh Gawli, having a great match till then, picked up a silly second yellow. It signalled the end of the tournament for perhaps the coolest head in this East Bengal defence. This could really have brought Petrokimia back in the match.

As was seen in the previous match, East Bengal once again produced a dogged display under adversity. Bhowmick promptly brought down Suley Musah to plug the gap in central defence and posted Douglas da Silva in front of the backline proper as a defensive screen. Both before and after this, the covering of the East Bengal defenders was flawless and the Indonesians rarely got a chance to shoot at goal.

It was nostalgic to see East Bengal snatch victory with ten players. In the same place, a 10-man Indian team beat Thailand 4-1 in the quarter finals en route to the gold in the 1962 Asian Games. Yours truly was a part of that team and nothing will please me more to see an encore in Saturday’s final. It will be difficult, but this East Bengal team has proved it dares to dream.

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