The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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East Bengal raise bar, in last 8
- Okoro ensures 1-1 draw versus Geylang United

Calcutta: East Bengal thought it would be difficult, made things difficult by missing several chances, and still saw themselves through to the quarter finals of the AFC Cup following Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Geylang United of Singapore.

East Bengal thought it would be a tough outing against the visitors because they were without a host of first-choice players, in key positions. They also anticipated a stern test from the Singapore side, who came well prepared. In the end, East Bengal controlled the pace and direction of the match, salvaged just a stalemate in spite of all this, but most importantly, accomplished mission.

They are guaranteed a place in the quarter-final phase of the championship, no matter what happens in the other matches, even if they relinquish their position of group E toppers after the last match in Malaysia against Negeri Sembilan (on May 18). That’s why coach Subhas Bhowmick sported a chuckle at the post-match media session.

In the worst case scenario, East Bengal can lose that last match and hand over the top spot in the group to Geylang. They will still make the cut as one of the three best second-placed teams from the five groups, since just one other second-placed team can overtake them (details in box).

East Bengal can top the group with just a draw in their last outing. They have 13 points from five matches. Geylang are second with ten from five. If they lose and Geylang beat Maldivian minnows Islands FC at home, East Bengal will finish second in the group on goal difference. But that eventuality will not foster any mathematical possibility of East Bengal missing out on a quarter-final berth.

Too much of calculations and complications! In terms of football, East Bengal wasted a golden chance to put to rest all speculations and emerge group champions in front of a moderate 15,000 turnout at Salt Lake Stadium.

Despite dictating terms from just after the first quarter, East Bengal saw the visitors take the lead through Daniel Hill in the 33rd minute. Before and after this, all the pressure was near the Geylang box, though it yielded the result just once — in the 76th minute, when Mike Okoro struck.

Bhaichung Bhutia emerged an unlikely anti-hero in the tale of opportunities lost, muffing up a rare chance of completing a hattrick before half time. His striking partner Cristiano Junior was off-colour, while Bijen Singh, Surkumar Singh and Dipankar Roy all failed to find the target from close in the second half.

Both teams were cautious in the beginning. Geylang were compact in defensive organisation but East Bengal won the vital battle of wresting the control of midfield as Okoro played a crucial role once again.

That done, it was nearly one-way traffic, though East Bengal didn’t seem too eager to increase men upfront. This was understandable, considering the fact they were without so many regulars. They relied on sporadic bursts, using Surkumar’s power and Shylo Malsawmtluanga’s speed down the right corridor.

One such move started by Okoro in the 28th minute saw Surkumar release Malsawmtluanga on the flank. The youngster sent in a low cross after cutting in and all Bhutia needed to score was a touch, in to an open goal. He went for a low header and made a mess of the chance of the day.

The anti-climax came six minutes later. Probably for the only time in the match, there were not enough defenders inside the East Bengal box when Aleksander Duric’s cross found Hill near the far post. The unmarked Englishman finished with a first-time, right-footed jab.

Bhutia was in the thick of things again in the 40th minute when Junior released him down the middle. Bhutia sped past his markers but went too wide and his last-ditch shot hit the goalkeeper before rolling out. The India captain wasted an easier chance soon after when he failed to time his jump to an inviting cross from Okoro. He was inside the six-yard box with the goalkeeper at his mercy.

The flow of attacks changed ends after the break and East Bengal kept pounding the rival defence. They reached the penalty area without much difficulty but struggled to make further headway against a defence that was getting more populated as the match wore on.

East Bengal strengthened the right wing further by putting Dipankar Roy there and after a few blunders, the diminutive medio made amends. His short, clever flick found Surkumar inside the box, who relayed the ball to Okoro. The Nigerian beat his marker to the ball, turned and picked his spot before ramming home a right-footer.


GEYLANG UNITED: Shahril Bin Jantan, Noh Bin Rahman, Razaleigh Bin Khalik, Jerry Bartholomeuz, Faisal Bin Abdul Hamid, Daniel Hill, Aleksander Duric, Chang Hui (Fazruk Nawaz, 72), Hasrin Bin Jailani (Jeykaanth, 65), Khairon Bin Daiman, Noor Ali.

EAST BENGAL: Sangram Mukherjee; Surkumar Singh, Dipak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli; Sasthi Duley, Mike Okoro, Chandan Das (Anit Ghosh, 63), Bijen Singh (Dipankar Roy 62); Bhaichung Bhutia, Cristiano Junior (K. Kulothungan, 75).

Referee: Ramkrishna Ghosh (Bangladesh).

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