| Mohammedan Sporting's Hossain Mustafi (right) tries to hook the ball away form East Bengal's Suley Musah at Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday. Picture by Santosh Ghosh
Calcutta: Little-known Abdul Rauf Khan rose from nowhere to bring East Bengal down to earth in Sunday’s Super Division championship leg match at Salt Lake Stadium. Mohammedan Sporting’s anticlimactic 2-1 win threw open the title race once again — handing Mohun Bagan a chance to nail their high-flying arch-rivals.
East Bengal’s tally is 34 points, with three matches left. Mohun Bagan, on 29, can force a play-off final if they win their remaining four matches — irrespective of East Bengal’s showing — since the difference between the top two teams has to be less than three points to avoid that scenario.
It was less arithmetic and more commitment on the field as far as Mohammedan Sporting were concerned. Mohammed Habeeb’s boys looked determined to shrug off memories of some nightmarish performances in the recent past.
They were lucky to an extent, too, as even an off-colour East Bengal forced more chances only to squander them all. Also, Mohammedan Sporting goalkeeper Amar Deb effected two crucial saves.
Mohammedan Sporting took the lead four minutes after resumption through Sheikh Sanjib, but Mike Okoro restored parity in two minutes. Half-time substitute Rauf then pulled off the remarkable coup three minutes from full time, following a meandering run through the heart of East Bengal’s vaunted defence.
The start was predictable with East Bengal trying to establish early ascendancy. In the third minute, Shylo Malsawmtluanga started a fine move down the right and cleverly released Suley Musah on the edge of the box. The Ghanaian, playing as striker, ran in seeing Okoro free in front of the goal and passed the ball to him. The Nigerian made an unbelievable mess of the chance.
To Mohammedan Sporting’s credit, they succeeded in keeping the prolific Okoro in check with central defenders Hussain Mustafi and Madhab Das rarely allowing the striker the chance to turn and wrest control. The burly Musah was under tight vigil, too, as Nigerian Habeeb Adenkule did a commendable job as marker.
Mohammedan Sporting were well served by new recruit John Ugwu. The Nigerian acted as a screen in the midfield and was also an active link between the deep defenders and attackers. East Bengal badly missed such a player in this position — where Musah and Douglas da Silva have served them so well in the past.
Chances still came their way in the second half, but the usually reliable Sashthi Duley twice failed to shoot from close after being set up by K. Kulothungan on both occasions. The substitute was himself guilty of failing to put boot to ball off a Chandan Das corner in the 70th minute when the ball had sailed near an empty far post.
All these chances came East Bengal’s way after the equaliser and they could have killed the contest here. Before this, disaster had struck them first in the 49th minute when Dipendu Biswas had headed down a free-kick by Mustafi.
Rauf got hold of the ball, shot from a tight angle and the ball took a deflection off goalkeeper Sandip Nandy and was about to enter the goal before Sanjib provided the final touch.
Stung, East Bengal came back strongly and off an immaculate free-kick by Malsawmtluanga, Musah’s volley was partially saved by the goalkeeper. Okoro was lurking around and his striker’s instinct came fore for the only time in the match as he rammed the rebound between the helpless goalkeeper and the near post.
With both teams mentally preparing for a draw, Rauf got hold of a loose ball outside the East Bengal penalty box and an amazing run culminated in probably the most important goal of the season.
Dipendu was sent off for a second yellow after that. The Mohammedan Sporting skipper was a happy man still.
Mohammedan Sporting: Amar Deb; Amjad Ali Khan, Hussain Mustafi, Madhab Das, Momocha Singh, Habeeb Adenkule; Bungo Singh (Abdul Rauf Khan, 46), John Ugwu, Khalid Siddique (Shahnawaz Iqbal Khan, 58); Sheikh Sanjib (Dipankar Chatterjee, 65), Dipendu Biswas.
East Bengal: Sandip Nandy; Mahesh Gawli, M. Suresh, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury; Dipankar Roy (Surya Bikash Chakraborty, 34), Sashthi Duley, Shylo Malsawmtluanga, Chandan Das (Tushar Rakshit, 73), Bijen Singh (K. Kulothungan, 53); Suley Musah, Mike Okoro.
Referee: Subrata Das.