| East Bengal players celebrate Chandan Das’ goal during their Durand Cup semi-final versus Air India in New Delhi on Saturday. (PTI)
New Delhi, Nov. 8: East Bengal made their 25th entry into the Durand Cup final when they cantered past an overawed Air India 3-0 in the second semi-final today. The scoreline could have been 6-0 if Mike Okoro & Co. had not come up with an exhibition of misses.
East Bengal gave glimpses of their vintage form, despite the injury-induced absence of Bhaichung Bhutia and Sur Kumar Singh. All three goals — by S. Malsawmtluanga (21st minute), Chandan Das (35th) and Mike Okoro (57th) — were classics.
Ten months ago East Bengal had trounced Air India 4-0 in the 2002 Durand quarter final league match. It seemed from today’s timid performance that Air India were still haunted by that scoreline. Their defensive work, especially, was inadequate.
It is doubtful whether East Bengal had an easier outing in their 24 previous semi-final appearances here. Goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee and the defence were barely tested. It was only after scoring thrice did East Bengal take their foot off the accelerator and the youthful Air India team made a few sporadic raids.
East Bengal played in the 3-5-2 system. Surya Bikash Chakraborty and Mahesh Gawli were the markers and Suley Musah the sweeper-back. The return of Chandan Das and Sasthi Duley improved the fluency of East Bengal’s midfield and the passing was more accurate.
Debjit Ghosh played a defensive role, allowing the speedy Subhash Chakraborty, K. Kulothungan and S. Malswamtluanga to constantly inter-change positions and harass the Air India rearguard.
Holders East Bengal played patient possession football from the start and the variety in their attack bewildered Air India’s defence.
Early in the game, Chandan delayed shooting from close and Kulothungan sent the ball well over the crosspiece. The floodgates opened in the 21st minute. Okoro, from the left, squared to Malsawmtluanga who evaded his marker and, on the turn, took a diagonal left-footer which struck the post and went in.
It was now East Bengal all the way. Chandan, whose mobility and accurate passing was quite remarkable, sent Okoro through but the latter shot tamely straight to goalkeeper Raju Ekka. In the 35th minute, Subhash Chakraborty squared to Chandan who, from 25 yards, bulged the netting with a thunderous right footer — the goal of the tournament.
Dipankar Roy came in for the first time in the meet, as a second-half substitute for Malswamtluanga and tormented markers Benoy Kuruvilla and Paresh Shivalkar with his dribbling.
Okoro tamely headed out a measured cross from Dipankar in the 49th minute, but made amends eight minutes later. The Nigerian striker, on a solo dash from midfield, slipped past three defenders and the goalkeeper to score.
For the first time in three matches, East Bengal coach Subhas Bhowmick had a look of relief on his face. “We are not yet playing at our best but we showed improved form today,” Bhowmick said.
About Bhaichung’s chances of playing in the final, the coach said: “Ask Bhaichung about his fitness!”
East Bengal: Sangram Mukherjee, Surya Bikash Chakraborty, Suley Musah, Mahesh Gawli, S. Malsawmtluanga (Dipankar Roy, 45), Debjit Ghosh, Chandan Das, Subhash Chakraborty (Alvito D’Cunha, 60), Sasthi Duley (Raman Vijayan, 80), K. Kulothungan, Mike Okoro .
Air India: Raju Ekka, Benoy Kuruvilla, Naushad Moosa, Osbern D’Souza (L. Thomthe, 86), Paresh Shivalkar, M.K. Binno, Vijita Shetty, M. Rizwan (Appa Rao, 75 ) Santosh Kohli, Suprit Jathanna and Stephen Mar.
Referee: S.M. Balu (Karnataka).