| Mike Okoro (hands folded) celebrates his goal as Malswamtluanga (left) and Kulothungan join in at the Salt Lake Stadium Thursday
Calcutta: It was one of those rare matches on the Calcutta Maidan; competitive to the core. Six goals were scored, goalline saves were made, two penalties were ordered of which one was wasted, and Mohammedan Sporting, down by two goals within the first nine minutes of the match, fought back like tigers to level scores (3-3) and share honours with Calcutta Super Division League leaders East Bengal at the Salt Lake Stadium Thursday.
Mike Okoro, Alvito De Cunha and S. Malswamtluanga scored for East Bengal, while Reaj-ul Mustafa converted a penalty and Syed Rahim Nabi scored twice for Mohammedan Sporting. Okoro also missed a penalty in a pretty charged match.
The draw keeps East Bengal ahead in the league (27 points from 11outings), with Mohammedan Sporting at 24 points from 11 matches, but the scope now opens up for Mohun Bagan too, so far lying low. East Bengal will still have to take on Mohun Bagan and Port Trust, while Mohammedan Sporting have to deal with Mohun Bagan and Tollygunge Agragami. Equations can change, and the balance could be affected.
Before Mohammedan Sporting coach Mohammed Habeeb took to the field with his wards, he told them one simple thing. “This opportunity has come, back again, to take a shot at the title,” he had said. “All I can tell you is play for whatever you are worth as a footballer, play for all the 90 minutes available, with all you have.”
Well, the first half did not quite show up in the black-white players’ hopes, as the East Bengal forward line singed the Mohammedan Sporting defence. Coach Subhas Bhowmick knew he had to tackle his defensive weakness with offensive overdoses. In the sixth minute, off a long clearance from the rear, Okoro latched on and moved 15 yards and into the box, getting past Habib Adekunle in the process. Goalkeeper Satish Kumar was beaten hands down with his volley that easily lodged into the netting.
Even before Mohammedan Sporting could absorb the shock of this early setback, East Bengal struck again. A ninth minute pass from K. Kulothungan went through Malswamtluanga to De Cunha. De Cunha trapped, controlled, and sent a fine acute-angle grounder to the far corner of the goal.
All this happened too fast. In a ‘big’ match the teams do allow time to judge each other for a while before opening up. But a two-goal lead so early in the match should have put Mohammedan Sporting spirits down for good. Interestingly, this did not happen. If anything, Mohammedan Sporting went all out, now with nothing more to lose and all to gain.
Mohammedan Sporting were able to push their counter-attacks in with ease, thereby exposing the gaps in the rival defence. And there was nothing coach Bhowmick could do about it.
In the 14th minute a mispass at the East Bengal goalmouth resulted in Abdulateef Seriki getting possession. He was at the goalmouth in a jiffy, the defenders falling by the wayside. Had it not been for the soggy ground (with sharp showers before the match), Seriki could not have delayed and Satish Kumar would not have been able to save as he did.
East Bengal’s problem just would not go away. Whenever the attack side faltered, the Mohamedan Sporting attackers took charge. In the 25th minute another Seriki shot from inside the box was saved from the goalline by Anit Ghosh after even the goalkeeper had been beaten.
The pressure had to yield results, and five minutes later, with Dipendu Biswas moving in, Subhasis Roy Chowdhury foul-tackled the attacker. A penalty was ordered by referee Subrata Sarkar. Reaj-ul Mustafa converted with a nice placement.
Probably feeling that a one-goal cushion was too thin, East Bengal came back into attack. In the 43rd minute, a De Cunha-Surya Bikash relay reached Malswamtluanga on the right on top of the box. Malswamtluanga was challenged by Hussein Mustafi, the man coach Habeeb thought would be the Chinese Wall, but Malswamtluanga’s shot hit Mustafi and ballooned a bit before taking the palm of an advancing goalkeeper Imran Khan and moving in.
If 3-1 was a winning score, Mohammedan Sporting did not think so. They were back with renewed vigour in the second half. They snatched, toiled, covered, passed and did all the right things. Okoro, at the other end, was getting frustrated and it was showing. In the 58th minute he moved right, into the box and a Mustafi body-check resulted in a penalty ordered. Okoro hurried a bit and shot it wide. The real cushion was lost for East Bengal.
In the 27th minute of the latter session substitute Arjan Ali took a flag-kick from the right which swerved into the goalmouth. Syed Rahim Nabi jumped and quickly nodded home a neat goal.
That was a taste of blood in Mohammedan Sporting tongue. They were all over, trying every move and every nook. Eleven minutes later Mustafi sent one, just off the midfield, and Nabi collected. Into the box, the in-lien man Radhakrishna Dube fell by the wayside and Subhasis could not intercept either. The goalkeeper was unsighted, as Nabi slotted home the equaliser.
EAST BENGAL: Satish Kumar, Surya Bikash Chakraborty, Anit Ghosh, Subhashis Roy Chowdhury, Radhakrishna Dube, Shankarlal Chakraborty, S. Malswamtluanga, Chandan Das, Alvito De Cunha (Subhas Chakraborty, 85), Mike Okoro, K. Kulothungan.
MOHAMMEDAN SPORTING: Imran Khan, Reaj-ul Mustafa, Insan Ali, Hussein Mustafi, Biswanath Mondal, Syed Rahim Nabi, Amit Das (Arjan Ali, 67), Habib Adekunle, Khemtang Paite (Arunava Sarkar, 28), Dipendu Biswas, Abdulateef Seriki.
Referee: Subrata Sarkar.