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East Bengal begin new season with a hard fought draw

Dhiman Sarkar | HT


Patience, East Bengal coach Alejandro Menendez knew, would be required in spades to break Real Kashmir FC, a team that had nine clean sheets and conceded only 14 goals in the 2018-19 I-league season.

“I told the team to think that the score at half-time was 0-0 and not us trailing 0-1,” he said, after East Bengal, like Mohun Bagan, began the 2019-20 I-League with a draw here on Wednesday.

East Bengal did as their coach said, used the width of the park, got more balls into the penalty area – which is how they play under Spaniard Menendez – and were rewarded with a 76th minute goal from Marcos de la Espada which neutralised Gnohere Krizo’s 32nd minute strike at the Kalyani Municipality Stadium.

Till the equaliser, this looked like a stadium where Real Kashmir would beat East Bengal for the first time in their second I-League top tier season. Last August, having barely trained for one session and with their state under a communications lockdown, they beat I-League champions Chennai City FC 1-0 in their Durand Cup opener here, some 54 kms from Kolkata.

Like on Wednesday, it was achieved without Mason Robertson, their utility player with the build of a bear. Robertson was not registered for the Durand Cup; for the 2019-20 I-League he is but Real Kashmir coach and the player’s father David Robertson said he hasn’t recovered from a back injury.

Real Kashmir wore his absence lightly, battening down the hatches after Krizo struck and looking solid defensively even before he did. The Ivorian scored with an angular delight after latching on to a long ball from Aaron Katebe and making Kassim Aidara chase a crooked shadow. Central defender Mehtab Singh stood transfixed as Krizo opened his shoulders and buried a drive into the bottom corner at the far

“That was the only time we were not vigilant. We knew he does that, he tried a similar effort against Jamshedpur FC in a friendly but couldn’t score then. They scored from the only chance they got,” said Menendez.

Krizo has been with Real Kashmir since the team played in the second division of the I-League; one of those, according to coach Robertson, who typifies the desire and team spirit that make this team more than the sum of its parts.

To contain East Bengal, Real Kashmir knew they would have to defend putting bodies on the line. From a 37th minute goalline save by Kallum Higginbotham to goalkeeper Phurba Lachenpa getting a hand out in time to deny Singh’s 79th minute header, they did that.

The one time they couldn’t was when Juan Mera loped down the left, cut in and found De La Espada who tapped in. For all their possession, East Bengal, playing in shirts that look closest to the one the team wore when they were born 100 years ago, couldn’t unlock the Real Kashmir defence but the margin of victory could have been greater had De La Espada not ballooned over on the half-turn after Lachenpa fluffed a regulation collection.

Used as a forward with Jamie Santos, De La Espada — one of the four Spaniards in East Bengal’s starting line-up on the night — also couldn’t get enough power to a header in the 55th

“Before the game, if you had told me, we would take a point, I would have been happy. This game turned out like the 1-1 draw against East Bengal at Salt Lake stadium last season. We hung in till the end then. Not many teams are going to get points from here,” said David Robertson.

If that is how the I-League pans out for East Bengal, it would be the last time they hear the jibe of  “16 going on 17” to become league champions again.

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