Calcutta: It might just be the beginning of another dream. East Bengal proved once again that the ASEAN Club Championship success in Jakarta last year was not just a flash in the pan.
Playing in front of a packed stadium in Singapore, they kept the Indian flag flying, beating Geylang United FC 3-2 in their opening match of the AFC Cup on Tuesday.
The commendable show was rewarded by a handsome cash bonus. Amitava Roy, a local businessman who is also a club member, announced an incentive of 500 Singapore dollars for each player for their prowess on field.
According to information received here, Brazilian Cristiano Junior scored a brace while Bijen Singh completed the tally for East Bengal, who had conceded an early lead.
But the star of the day was none other than the ‘whimsical Nigerian’. It was Mike Okoro who stole the show. After coming close to being suspended for his ‘arrogant attitude’ late last year, Okoro has come back with a bang.
Needless to say, coach Subhas Bhowmick was all praise for his trumpcard.
“Playing a little withdrawn, he controlled the game brilliantly. He really put the opposition defence under huge pressure,” Bhowmick told The Telegraph from Singapore after the match.
Contrary to plans before embarking on the tour, East Bengal went all out in attack right from the word go. They thought it would be prudent to take the rivals by surprise early on, rather than following a wait-and-watch policy.
In the 10th minute, a Surkumar Singh shot struck the inside of the post and came back into play. That was just an indication of what was to come as East Bengal mounted pressure on the opposition. But against the run of play, they conceded a goal in the 38th minute following a counterattack.
However, that was probably the spark East Bengal needed and they responded in great fashion. In the 41st minute, Junior took a shot and the rival defence thought Okoro would take control of the ball. But the skilful and clever player that he is, Okoro left the ball, which foxed the Geylang defence and rolled into the goal.
Junior’s impressive run in East Bengal colour thus continued. He left for Singapore after playing eight matches in the National Football League, in which he scored seven goals. He is also the leading scorer in the League at the moment.
Bhaichung Bhutia was instrumental in setting up the second goal. The Indian captain took a host of rival defenders away with him towards the corner and relayed a brilliant minus from the goalline which Junior had only to tap into the open net. At this point of time, Bhowmick took off a tiring Alvito D’Cunha and brought in the nippy Bijen Singh. And the move bore fruit immediately.
Bijen was in the right place at the right time to shot the ball in as Junior essayed a measured centre from the right in the 83rd minute. Bijen, who has not been in great form in doemstic tournaments this season, lived up to his reputation of scoring important goals in international matches. He had scored the crucial winner in East Bengal’s ASEAN Club Championship quarter-final win against an Indonesian side.
But the third goal seemed to bring in a bit of complacency in the East Bengal ranks and they conceded a goal in injury time.
“This victory is a huge boost for my side and it will set us up quite nicely for the rest of the tournament,” Bhowmick, who took special care to prepare his team for this competition, said.
Comparing this performance with the success in the ASEAN meet, the coach said: “BEC Tero Sasana, whom we beat in the final, was a better side. But Geylang was surely better than the other sides we had faced in that tournament. I don’t have words to describe how well my boys have played today.”
The coach also felt that his side should have won by a bigger margin. “Had we been able to utilise the chances, we could have easily won 5-2 or 6-2.”
Teams from Malaysia and Maldives are East Bengal’s other opponents in this group. Their next match is against a Malaysian team here on February 25.
EAST BENGAL Sangram Mukherjee, Subhasish Roy Chowdhury, Mahesh Gawli, Dipak Mondal, Surkumar Singh, Sasthi Duley, Mike Okoro, Debjit Ghosh, Alvito D’Cunha (Bijen Singh, 73), Cristiano Junior, Bhaichung Bhutia (S. Malsawmtluanga, 80).
Musah surgery on Wednesday
It was later learnt that East Bengal captain Suley Musah would be operated upon by Dr Anant Joshi in Mumbai on Wednesday.