Kuwait City: East Bengal remained in hunt for their maiden AFC Cup final berth even as they lost 2-4 to Kuwait SC, in the first leg of the semi-final, on Tuesday. On October 22, they have to win by 2-0 or 3-1 to enter the final on away goal rule.
If goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu did not come up with that 47th minute howler, which allowed Kuwait SC to score their fourth, the scoreline would have read 3-2! And Kuwait SC would certainly have found it difficult to keep their one-goal advantage in front of 60,000 boisterous East Bengal supporters at the imposing Salt Lake Stadium.
But then let’s not dwell on the what-it would-have-been aspects and rather, hail East Bengal’s gallant fight back even after being four-nil down.
Issam Jemaa netted a brace, while Waleed Ali Jumah and Chedi Hammami scored once each. And for the visitors, Uga Okpara and Lalrindika Ralte reduced the margin.
East Bengal coach Marcos Falopa started with a very defensive style. Harmanjyot Singh Khabra, who got his first start of the season, was stationed in front of the back four, while Mehtab played high up the pitch behind the two strikers — James Moga and Edeh Chidi. Saumik Dey and Joaquim Abranches were the widemen.
One cannot blame Falopa for being overtly defensive, as his main target was not to let in early goals. But what happened was exactly the opposite. East Bengal defenders erred badly as they went for the offside trap. Central defender Arnab Mondal was way behind Okpara and the wily Tunisian Jemaa beat the trap easily.
He had only Gurpreet to beat and did that with utmost ease. That was in the 17th minute.
Ten minutes later, East Bengal got a chance to equalise. Moga and Chidi linked up well and the latter found a ball crying to be put into the net.
The Nigerian on any other day would have finished it with a bang, but on Tuesday he volleyed it into the side netting. That goal could have turned the tide in East Bengal’s favour. Kuwait SC’s second came in the 32 nd minute. Jarah Al Ateeqi played a sumptuous pass on the left and Waleed timed his run from the blindside to perfection and fired the ball into the roof of the net.
Surprisingly, this time as well the East Bengal defence went for the off-side trap and forgot the fact that there is something called a blindside run, too, in football. There was no recuperation time for the visitors as third came soon after. Abdullah Al Buraiki once again cut through the East Bengal off-side trap and played it to Sami Al Sanea whose shot was partly parried by Gurpreet.
Super Sniper Jemaa was at the right place at the right time to prod it home. The fourth came in the 48 th. This time it wasn’t the defence, but Gurpreet, who let his team down. He made an absolute mess of Al Ateeqi’s cross from the left by flapping it down to the path of Chadi Hammami, who hit the back of the net without battling an eyelid. It’s Gurpreet’s fifth season for East Bengal and he is yet to be consistent with his performance. And this is not the first time he made this type of a horrendous mistake.
Zero-four down, Falopa went for the jugular. He brought in Ralte in place of Khabra and East Bengal started showing more intent. In the 66th minute, their hard work paid off. Uga leapt high to nod home Ralte’s corner from the left. Suddenly, there was a spring in East Bengal’s steps. They started pushing more men forward and substitute Cavin Lobo once came agonisingly close to reduce the margin when his first-time drive missed the target by a whisker.
Three minutes from regulation time came the second goal and probably the most important of the match.
Ralte did well to pick the ball in the left side of the Kuwait SC box and moved it onto his right foot so elegantly that his marker could only watch in awe. He then left goalkeeper Musab Al Kandari with no chance to move. A great strike from a man who is known more for his left foot.
Kuwait SC: Musab Al Kandari, Hussain Hakem, Walid Ali Jumah, Abdullah Al Buraiki (Abdullah Al Dhafeeri, 90+2), Chedi Hammami, Shereedah Al Shereedah, Jarah Al Ateeqi, Hussain Ali Baba, Sami Al Sanea, Rogerio (Hadi Khamees, 68th ), Issam Jemaa
East Bengal: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Saumik Dey, Uga Okpara, Arnab Mondal, Naoba Singh, Harmanjyot Singh Khabra (Lalrinidika Ralte, 49th), Mehtab Hussain, Robert Lalthlamuana (Cavin Lobo, 68th), James Moga, Edeh Chidi, Joaquim Abranches (Baljit Sahni 57th)
Referee: Tan Hai (China)