| Alvito D'Cunha gets past Mohun Bagan captain Manitombi Singh during their National Football League clash at the Salt Lake Stadium on Sunday. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya
Calcutta: A combination of good fortune and strong will gave East Bengal the desired result on a muggy Sunday afternoon at the Salt Lake Stadium.
As for Mohun Bagan, there was no change in their slide down relegation street in the National Football League (NFL) for the ONGC Cup.
There are four tough matches still to go for East Bengal (Mahindra and Salgaocar among them) but right now, they are perched atop the standings with a one-point advantage over Sporting Clube de Goa. Mohun Bagan, who haven't won a game in the last 10 rounds, are in ninth spot with three to play.
A Syed Rahim Nabi header fetched the red-and-golds the million-dollar goal after 75 minutes. As Man-of-the-Match Alvito D'Cunha curled in a routine left-footed cross, Eduardo Coelho stood mesmerised for reasons only he can explain. Nabi, who along with Sashthi Duley was planning to skip the game to answer office calls, pounced on the godsent opportunity to nod in with all the time in the world.
Ironically, the Mohun Bagan defence had withstood the limited East Bengal pressure rather well till then. Ajibade Babalade ' who at times looks the world's ugliest defender ' was, for a change, a tower of strength. With Bhaichung Bhutia absent and Ernest Jeremiah operating from a little deep, the big Nigerian had no problems in stymying Juliano Martins' threat.
East Bengal's sluggish approach in the first 45 minutes was paradoxical. The title-hunters almost played into their rivals' hands as they looked devoid of energy and purpose, with even Shylo Malsawmtluanga and Nabi a shadow of their normally lively self. But for an acrobatic effort by Juliano and a trademark through ball from Alvito ' which the Brazilian made a mess of ' there was nothing worth talking about.
Mohun Bagan, opting for the tried and tested rather than risk Pravin Rawat and Palash Karmakar, showed positive intentions in the first part of the game. Tomba Singh strode the middle of the park with authority, Mehtab Hussain and Basudeb Mondal lent support while Roberto Mendes Silva 'Beto' produced some delicate touches.
Beto, in fact, should have scored in the 15th minute. He himself was the creator ' evading a double-challenge, playing a one-two with Tomba and taking up position at the top of the box ' only to direct his right-footer a couple of feet over the bar. Minutes later, the Brazilian then failed to connect an inviting Mehtab free-kick six yards from the goal.
Quarter of an hour into the contest, misfortune struck Mohun Bagan. A Basudeb chip struck Debjit Ghosh's hands deep into the penalty box. There couldn't have been a more genuine case for a penalty, but the referee Benjamin Silva ignored the green-and-maroons' passionate pleas.
If that was the Goan referee's sole 'blunder' of the day, he committed at least three more 'mistakes'. On two of those occasions, he could have awarded penalties ' one on either side. The first case was Nabi pushing Mehtab off possession with the Mohun Bagan medio threatening to score. Then there was a role-reversal as Nabi got disbalanced by Mehtab's touch and missed out nodding the ball into a yawning goal.
Mr Silva, who seemed to have forgotten something called the 'advantage rule', also erred in not sending off Bijen Singh when he hacked down Mehrajuddin Wadao. The East Bengal striker, who had replaced Juliano five minutes earlier, got away with a booking.
East Bengal's wake-up call came after change of ends and it was Alvito who showed the way with some searing runs and incisive passing. Jeremiah and Duley got into the act too, pushing Babalade & Co. to the limit.
A crafty Jeremiah left-footer from about 25 yards out was well palmed away by Subrata Pal. The young Mohun Bagan goalkeeper also kept out a Climax Lawrence flick after the latter had been set up by a clever Bijen lob.
East Bengal were, for the first time, looking hungry. The goal came not long after as Mohun Bagan maintained their tradition of caving in towards the closing stages of a match.
Subrata Bhattacharya had gone through this ordeal. It's the turn of veteran Dutta to live through the pain now.
East Bengal: Rajat Ghosh Dastidar, Selwyn Fernandes, M. Suresh, Debjit Ghosh, Sashthi Duley, Syed Rahim Nabi, S. Malsawmtluanga (Bijen Singh, 54), Climax Lawrence, Ernest Jeremiah, Alvito D'Cunha (Sandip Das, 80), Juliano Martins (Dipankar Roy, 62).
Mohun Bagan: Subrata Pal, Manitombi Singh, Ajibade Babalade, Eduardo Coelho, Rishi Kapoor, Mehrajuddin Wadao, Mehtab Hussain, Basudeb Mondal (Palash Karmakar, 46), Tomba Singh, Sunil Chhetri (Jerry Zirsanga, 59), Roberto Mendes Silva 'Beto'.
Referee: Benjamin Silva (Goa).