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Sandhu error costs EB a win

- Title hopes as good as over for Colaco’s men; Sabeeth equalises for Bagan
James Moga (left) scores as goalkeeper Shilton Paul, Aiborlang Khongjee and Katsumi Yusa watch, on Saturday. A Telegraph picture

Calcutta: In the end, both Armando Colaco and Karim Bencharifa should be happy with the way the season’s last Derby panned out at the Salt Lake Stadium, here, on Saturday.

The 1-1 draw — James Moga had put East Bengal ahead in the 39th minute, while CS Sabeeth equalised in the 66th — may put to rest whatever slim chances East Bengal were harbouring of regaining the I-League. But it would give coach Colaco the courage to slowly implement his style of football.

Karim also should have a good night’s sleep thinking of the positives he gained from the clash. Knowing well that captain Okolie Odafa will not be there on Saturday, Bagan, over the past one week, were working on bringing in more movement in the attacking third. And the way Sabeeth slipped in behind the East Bengal defence to head home, after a Gurpreet Singh Sandhu howler, proved that all the instructions haven’t fallen on deaf ears. No wonder a contented Karim kept on smiling at the post-match media conference.

Bagan should consider themselves unlucky for not leaving the pitch with full points. They were very organised at the back-four, the wing-halves were mobile, Christopher Chizoba complemented Sabeeth really well upfront and Katsumi Yusa was everywhere.

It was mainly due to Sabeeth’s lack of big-match temperament that Bagan could not log full points. Twice in the first half, he had a clear look at the goal, but he flunked. Ram Mailk played to Christopher, who laid it off for Sabeeth brilliantly. With only Gurpreet to beat, Sabeeth shot straight at the goalkeeper. That was in the 25th minute.

Three minutes later, Christopher once again freed Sabeeth on the right and, this time, the striker chickened out once again. He held onto the ball far too long inside the box and, by the time, he played it back to Christopher, the East Bengal defence had already regrouped.

Katsumi has been drawing a lot of flak for his unimpressive performances this season. He has his limitations and is someone who is prone to make mistakes at crucial junctures. But, on Saturday, he gave it all and was the driver of the Bagan engine.

Manish Bharghav’s introduction in the 56th minute also paid off. The midfielder, coming in after a long injury lay-off, took a shot which bounced off Gurpreet’s hands and enabled Bagan to restore parity.

If Karim ticked the right boxes, his East Bengal counterpart made some bold moves. He benched Lalrindika Ralte and gave a start to Joaquim Abranches, the player he groomed during Dempo days. The Goan was outstanding on the left flank, doing a lot of running.

He also dropped deep to bolster the defence, something which Ralte lacked. And if what we saw on Saturday was a cursor, this could be the end of Ralte under Colaco. Unless, of course, Ralte works hard on his defensive capabilities.

Joaquim had two telling deliveries. The first one came six minutes before half-time and the Bagan defence was caught napping. Kinshuk Debnath and Aiborlang Khongjee were lax as Moga leapt high and headed in Joaquim’s centre. The second delivery was in injury-time, but a tired Ryuji Sueoka failed to convert.

Lastly something about Gurpreet. He made some good saves — one off Katsumi’s low shot would stand out — but the Saturday bungle will rankle for a long time. He could have easily gathered the ball before Bharghav’s shot bounced in front him and the frustration on his face said he too knew he had let his team down again.

The head-to-head count for the season is 1-1. Bagan now have 20 points from 18 matches, while East Bengal now have 20 from 14. For the record, none of the city teams are in the top-five of the I-League table.