East Bengal scraped through with a 2-2 draw against Minerva Punjab in their I-League game at the Barasat Stadium on Tuesday.
Sukhdev Singh (20') and Chencho Gyeltshen (33') scored for the visitors in the first half. Katsumi Yusa missed a penalty in the 50th minute but Jobby Justin (59') and Brandon Vanlalremdika (89') made sure the Red and Golds emerged with a point.
Fullbacks Mehtab Singh and Deepak Kumar, who last started for East Bengal in the first Kolkata derby of the season over eight weeks ago made a comeback. Salam Ranjan Singh took Arnab Mondal's place in central defence as Luis Barreto, Prakash Sarkar and Mondal were dropped from the matchday squad.
Lalramchullova and Mohammed Rafique were benched as Jobby Justin returned. Kerala-born goalkeeper Ubaid CK made his senior debut as Mahmoud Al Amna was injured and new signing Anusmana Kromah was named in the substitutes list as Khalid Jamil made seven changes.
Khogen Singh did not have similar headaches as he made only two changes. Deepak Devrani came in at left-back for Abhishek Ambekar and Souvik Das took Altamash Sayed's place in midfield.
Young Ubaid was put under the spotlight in the eleventh minute. William Opoku sent a through ball to Chencho Gyeltshen who took a shot from outside the box. Following a deflection off Armand Bazzoau, the ball changed direction but Ubaid somehow managed to keep it from going into the net.
Opoku's corner in the twentieth minute was passed backwards by Kassim Aidara after an unsuccessful attempt at goal. Kamalpreet Singh then delivered a long ball into the box and Sukhdev Singh forced Ubaid into a save. However, Salam Ranjan Singh failed to clear the loose ball and central defender scored from the rebound to break the deadlock.
Chencho doubled the lead for the visitors past the half-hour mark. Bazzoau and Eduardo Ferreira comically clashed with each other to block Bali's square pass and Salam was unable to get anywhere near the ball. The Bhutanese star took advantage and ran with the ball into the box to slot it past a hapless Ubaid.
Even though East Bengal had most of the ball possession in the first half, dangerous attacks came were very few in numbers.
Ansumana Kromah made his debut as he was brought on for Mehtab Singh in the 42nd minute as Jamil employed three strikers on the pitch with Bazzoau shifting to centre-back and Eduardo playing wide.
At the fag end of the half, Kiran Chemjong was called into action as Dudu Omagbemi came close to scoring from Kromah's deft pass. Katsumi Yusa was then brought down in the box by Guy Eric Dano only for referee Tejas Nagvenkar rebuff suggestions for a spot-kick.
The game resumed in the second period in a similar fashion but it was Laldanmawia who brought smiles to the East Bengal camp as he won a penalty after Kassim Aidara pulled him down. Katsumi Yusa squandered the golden opportunity as he shot straight at Kiran Chemjong who correctly dived to his right.
East Bengal did get their elusive first goal of the afternoon. Danmawia won the corner and Katsumi Yusa made up for the missed penalty by delivering a pin-point flag-kick towards Jobby Justin who leapt over Deepak Devrani and powerfully headed in past Chemjong who was left stunned.
The East Bengal players' newfound confidence was evident as they pushed forward in numbers and Minerva Punjab resorted to playing a deep block. Salam curled in a cross meant for Kromah but the Liberian fell shy of connecting with the ball. Bazzoau's left-footed shot was too weak as Sukhdev Singh had no troubles blocking it.
It was the substitution game thereafter as Khogen Singh decided to shut shop. Ambekar was brought in for Chencho and Brandon Vanlalremdika was brought in by Jamil to inject some pace. He immediately turned heads with his trickery on the flanks as he cut two defenders and had a penalty shout turned down.
With a minute of regulation time remaining, Brandon provided the equaliser from Katsumi's backpass which stemmed from Danmawia's cross across the face of goal as his shot went into the bottom left of the net.
Two minutes later, Danmawia hit the near post from Yusa's free-kick but it was too late to stage a magical comeback for East Bengal. At the full-time whistle, Katsumi Yusa would have rued his missed penalty as Khalid Jamil was put under more pressure at the club.
With the points split, East Bengal inched closer to second-placed NEROCA FC, now separated by a point. They will now host the Indian Arrows on February 4. Minerva Punjab opened a five-point lead at the top of the table ahead of their journey to Goa to take on Churchill Brothers.