Having missed the AFC Cup for six successive seasons after 2009, Mohun Bagan will now play in the tournament’s main round for two years in a row. Powered by a Jeje Lalpekhlua brace, they beat Club Valencia of Maldives 4-1 at Rabindra Sarovar stadium in Kolkata on Tuesday, winning the second-round qualifier tie 5-2 on aggregate.
Mohun Bagan are now unbeaten after 13 games, nine of which were in the I-League.
With I-League champions Bengaluru FC getting an automatic berth in the AFC Cup, India will have the same teams in Asia’s second-tier tournament from last year because neither Colombo FC nor Club Valencia were good enough for Mohun Bagan, who rested a string of regular players in the two qualifying rounds.
Mohun Bagan will now open against Bengaluru FC, away on March 14. The group also has Maziya SC of Maldives and Abahani Limited Dhaka.
Jeje Lalpekhlua sent Mohun Bagan on their way with a second-minute penalty awarded after his shot, off a Prabir Das corner-kick, struck defender Chizi Chinda’s hand. This was the first time he had taken a penalty after missing one against East Bengal on April 2, 2016 in the I-League. This time, Lalpekhlua sent goalie Mohamed Faisal the wrong way.
In complete control, Mohun Bagan ended the first half with Lalpekhlua going shoulder to shoulder with Hussain Nihan to meet Das’s delivery and the ball careening off the defender’s leg into the goal in the 45th minute.
Mohun Bagan began the second half with Sony Norde going solo when Lalpekhlua was better positioned to score and soon after, Balwant Singh had a shot blocked.
But from then, Mohun Bagan’s backline, from where Anas Edathodika and Subhasish Bose were called for an India camp on Tuesday, went off the boil and in the 52nd minute, a stunner from lone forward Godfrey West bulged the roof at Debjit Majumder’s near post.
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Had Ahmed Rilwan connected with a loose ball inside the six-yard box, it would have been 2-2 and Mohun Bagan could have exited on the away goals’ rule; the first leg having ended 1-1. But going to ground repeatedly and forcing a slew of interruptions, the visiting team rarely showed the self-belief needed to produce such a result.
Lalpekhlua did and it led to a headed goal, again off a Das assist, in the 82nd minute. Norde sealed the deal with a grounder in the 87th minute after Katsumi Yusa, who came on in the 66th minute, found him.