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East Bengal’s giant leap

- Morgan’s men need a draw to qualify for knockout phase

Calcutta: East Bengal are all but through to the pre-quarter finals of the AFC Cup when they defeated Tampines Rovers 2-1 in a Group H match at the Salt Lake Stadium, on a energy-sapping Tuesday afternoon.

Edeh Chidi, who came on as a substitute in place of a limping Andrew Barisic very early in the match, put the hosts ahead when his booming right-footer hit the back of the net. The visitors equalised when substitute Sead Hadzibulic scored from a delightful free-kick in the 68th minute. Three minutes before full-time, Lalrindika Ralte clinched the issue when his beautiful left-footer hit the bullseye.

East Bengal now top the group with 10 points from four matches and need just a draw from their next two matches to make the grade. Now, their target will be to finish as table-toppers which will enable them to play their pre-quarter final at home.

East Bengal would have sealed a berth in the knock-out round on Tuesday itself had Sai Gon Xuan Thanh defeated Malaysian club Selangor in the other match of the group. But Selangor won 3-1 at home.

East Bengal could have clinched the issue in the first half itself when they missed four open chances and after the equaliser it seemed the hosts might have to pay for all those misses. But in the end, Ralte’s left-foot calmed the nerves.

The first chance came as early as in the fifth minute when Manandeep Singh and Penn Orji combined well to set it up for Barisic. But the Australian made a mess of it. And once Chidi came in, it was his turn to muff chance after chance. In the 30th, Chidi had only rival goalkeeper Sasa Drevan to beat but held on to the ball for a while longer and that allowed two defenders to close in on him. In a haste, the Nigerian shot straight to Sasa.

Chidi was in the thick of action again and this time he was inside the box with Sasa horribly out of position. His shot was saved by Jufri bin Taha and, off the rebound, Ralte volleyed over.

Then in the 75th minute, Penn Orji’s blunder denied East Bengal a chance to take the lead. Penn beat off-side trap and had only Sasa in front of him. A push past the onrushing goalkeeper would have been enough but the Nigerian played it to Baljit Sahni who was in an off-side position when Penn had beaten the trap.

“My teammates didn’t alert me that there was nobody behind. I saw a glimpse of someone following me so I played it to Baljit. I was cursing myself after the linesman put the flag up. Luckily Lalrindika settled the issue,” said Penn.

Tampines Rovers also had their chances. Minutes after the equaliser, Hadzibulic got past an onrushing Abhijit Mondal and prodded it towards the goal. Raju Gaikwad came out of nowhere lunged forward to deny the Bosnian a sure goal.

Talking about the goals, Chidi’s effort had all the swagger of a champion. From the edge of the 18-yard box he hit a rasping right-footer and it showed how confident the Nigerian is at this point in time. East Bengal Abhijit Mondal should be blamed for the equaliser.

He stood right behind the human wall and Hadzibulic almost effortlessly curled it into the far corner. “In the last match he kept one on the near post. I thought this time also he would do the same. But I was wrong. I have to be blamed for the goal. It was my indecision, which allowed them to restore parity,” Abhijit was very candid.

And the third one? Well, it was a beauty. Ralte got his angle right from outside the penalty box just like he had done so many times this season. He did not have great match on Tuesday, but the strike would right all his wrongs.

TEAMS

East Bengal: Abhijit Mondal; Harmanjyot Singh Khabra, Gurwinder Singh, Raju Gaikwad, Soumik Dey; Sanju Pradhan (Cavin Lobo 81), Mehtab Hossain, Penn Orji, Lalrindika Ralte, Manandeep Singh (Baljit Sahni 67) and Andrew Barisic (Edeh Chidi 14).

Tampines Rovers: Sasa Dreven; Jufri bin Taha, Yamashita Kunihiro, Anaz Hadee, Shahdan Sulaiman, Mohammed Shaiful, Mustafic Fahruddin (Mohammed Amri 59), Firdaus Kasman (Martin Wagner 78), Jamil Ali (Sead Hadzibulik 65), Aleksander Duric, Imran Sahib.

Referee: Gamini Nivon Robesh (SL).