BY AYUSH SRIVASTAVA Follow @ayush_sri on twitter
When Chedi Hammami gratefully tapped in Kuwait SC’s fourth goal for the night with almost an entire half to be played, most observers feared that East Bengal would end up getting thrashed in the same vein as Radiant SC were, in the quarter-final against the AFC Cup defending champions.
At the end of the tie though, the talk was about how costly that clanger by Gurpreet Singh Sandhu for the fourth goal could prove to be, as the Red and Gold fought back admirably to claw back two goals and stay firmly in the tie.
Such was the brilliance of the side, once Lalrindika Ralte and Cavin Lobo joined the fray, that one almost wondered if Marcos Falopa had over-estimated the abilities of the opposition and undervalued his own side’s capabilities at the start of the game.
In the last half hour of the game, gone were the side that looked cagey and incapable of putting together a few passes in the first half, as Ralte and Lobo surged forward at every attempt. The duo showed great desire, a good touch, passing ability and the confidence to take on opposition players and shoot at goal.
Back to the training ground for the Red and Gold...
This performance should definitely see the pair seal a place in the starting eleven in the second leg in Kolkata, and it remains to be seen if Ryuji Sueoka is fit enough to play any part in it, having missed the first leg due to injury.
One player who definitely should not be joining them in the starting line-up is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, whose performance was diabolical to say the least, and to describe his error for the fourth goal as school-boyish would be akin to insulting a school kid, as he superbly cushioned the ball down for Hammami.
And it’s not like it was just one aberration to add to his catalogue of big blunders in important ties for East Bengal. He looked shaky when coming out to deal with crosses, and more often than not, parried the ball into the danger zone when making regulation saves.
In a tie that is now on a knife’s edge, Falopa just cannot gamble on playing the former Indian Arrows custodian, and must go for the more experienced and reliable Abhijit Mondal.
Gurpreet’s lack of confidence seemed to even fluster his defense, who were often caught in two-minds in the first 60 minutes of the game.
The team looked especially susceptible down the wings, as Kuwait SC looked to bypass East Bengal’s stronger central core.
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It was though, a lack of communication between Arnab Mondal and Uga Okpara, that saw Issam Jemaa strolled past the Red and Gold’s attempts to play him offside, and slot the ball past Gurpreet.
In general, it seemed like Falopa’s decision to employ an ultra-cautious tactical plan, backfired in the first half, as Kuwait’s domination in possession eventually was converted to a telling lead on the scoreboard.
James Moga and Chidi Edeh were left to battle for scraps, though the latter should have done better after being found in a promising position by his South Sudanese partner.
That, if anything, will be one of the promising notes that Falopa can take into the second leg, as once Lobo and Ralte joined the duo on the pitch, Kuwait SC’s defense had a nightmare dealing with the quartet.
And this must form the basis of his tactics for the second leg, as East Bengal must throw caution to the wind, if they are to overturn the two goal deficit against a formidable opposition, which shall now know better than taking the Kolkata side lightly.
However the Red and Gold showed plenty of potential in the last half an hour of the game, and if the above mentioned quartet can continue in the same vein in the second leg, combined with a solid performance in defense, East Bengal could definitely pop a surprise.
Add the support of what could be a passionate 80,000 plus crowd at the Salt Lake stadium, and the stage is set for Marcos Falopa’s men to script history and make it to their first ever AFC Cup final.