Esqueda’s headers help East Bengal come back to beat Neroca
The blemish came in the third minute. But a resolute East Bengal kept pushing and scored twice in the second half through substitute Enrique Esqueda’s headers to keep I-League title hopes alive and begin their string of four I-League games in 11 days with a 2-1 win against Neroca FC.
After 14 matches, East Bengal have 28 points, three more than Neroca who have played two more rounds.
Chencho Gyeltshen, last season’s nemesis for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan when he played for Minerva Punjab FC, scored with a third minute tap-in after East Bengal goalie Rakshit Dagar gripped air while trying to stop a Katsumi Yusa corner-kick, the match’s first. The ball fell to Lalrindika Ralte who couldn’t control and that meant Gyeltshen, on loan from Bengaluru FC, had an easy stab.
The corner-kick had resulted from a Yusa long ball between East Bengal central defenders Johnny Acosta and Borja Gomez that had Gyeltshen’s scooting through before a desperate Gomez managed a touch.
Rattled, East Bengal played further up the park but ran into a sea of bodies. Neroca kept Abdul Salam in front of the back four and had four midfielders playing close to him. That meant East Bengal had to find space through nine outfield players in their front third and ended up feeling suffocated.
A string of half-chances were all they managed. Antonio Dovale stabbed wide after running in to meet to a hook-back from Jaime Colado as did Laldanmawia Ralte in the 33rd. Seven minutes later, Jobby Justin couldn’t finish a buildup involving Lalrindika Ralte, Kassim Aidara and Dovale. In the 42nd minute, Dovale’s attempt --- off a well-rehearsed corner-kick drill that had Colado playing it short to Lalrindika Ralte who found Johnny Acosta before the ball reached the East Bengal forward --- was saved by Lalit Thapa in Neroca’s goal. Thapa was also alert to a Justin side-volley close to half-time.
East Bengal were also lucky that what looked like a Justin handball inside the area while defending a corner-kick wasn’t penalized in the 22nd minute. That and a free-kick from Katsumi which central defender Eduardo Ferreira couldn’t turn it towards goal were all that Neroca managed in the game and yet came close to dealing East Bengal’s title prospects a body blow.
The story changed in the second half when the pressure of defending took its toll on Neroca. In the 55th minute, Colado had a clear look on goal but wasted a long pass with a heavy touch. East Bengal coach Alejandro Garcia then brought on Esqueda in the 57th minute for Dovale and replaced Kamalpreet Singh with Samad Ali Mallick in the 64th.
Neroca’s central defenders Soares and Varney Kallon were out of position when Esqueda and Justin attacked a Colado delivery and the Mexican flicked home in the 67th minute. Garcia’s substitutions were involved in the matchwinner in the 86th. Mallick overlapped on the right and his assist was headed home by Esqueda who now has five goals despite having missed a long part of the league with injury. For 34, 852 supporters at the Salt Lake stadium, it meant the dream stayed alive.