East Bengal's winning ways came to a halt at Imphal after an 89th-minute volley by Nedo Turkovic cancelled out Katsumi Yusa's 13th-minute strike as NEROCA FC came back strongly to maintain their unbeaten run.
NEROCA boss Gift Raikhan deployed Felix Chidi up top on his own, flanked by Gopi Singh and Subhash Singh with Akhlidin Israilov and Aryn Glen Williams marshalling the midfield for the home side.
Looking to extend their lead at the top of the I-League 2017-18 table, Khalid Jamil named a strong XI for the visitors with Willis Plaza leading the line, supported by Mahmoud Al Amna, Laldanmawaia Ralte, and Katsumi Yusa behind him.
While it was an end-to-end start to the first period, it was the visitors who took the early lead in the 13th minute. Amna set Plaza through on the right with a beautifully threaded ball and the Trinidadian squared the ball inside the box. The chance fell to Ralte initially who fluffed it but Katsumi was on hand to tuck in a placed finish and make it 1-0 to East Bengal.
Williams had a shot from distance for the home side as they searched for an equalizer but his effort was saved comfortably by East Bengal custodian Luis Barreto. As the home side upped the ante, Jamil went for a tactical change in the first-half itself, throwing in Mohammed Rafique on for Prakash Sarkar. The home side meanwhile brought on Nedo Turković for Akhlidin Israilov.
Ralte had a chance to double the lead for Jamil’s men but he was unable to make the best connection while Amnah came close with a direct free-kick from the right-side which almost caught NEROCA goalkeeper Lalit Thapa off-guard.
Chidi, isolated on his own up top, was easily outnumbered by the East Bengal defence from time to time and the home side had to go into the interval trailing 0-1. The visitors lost striker Willis Plaza to a hamstring injury at the stroke of half-time and the forward had to be replaced by Charles de Souza.
Raikhan’s men started the second period on the front-foot and the tactical change to bring on Nedo seemed to be paying off as East Bengal came under increasing pressure.
However, Eduardo Ferreira was a rock at the heart of the visitors’ defence as the home side's attacks were constantly thwarted. Al Amna meanwhile had two quality chances to widen the lead as NEROCA were caught on the counter constantly. The Syrian however, squandered them when he had only Thapa to beat.
Gourmangi Singh was introduced by Raikhan as NEROCA threw caution to the winds. Nedo provided the home side with the height and physicality they had sorely missed in the initial periods and it was he who brought them level in the penultimate minute of normal time with a peach of a strike from the edge of the box.
A hopeful long ball from NEROCA was only half-cleared by the visitors and the ball fell to Nedo at the edge of the box who let fly first-time with a beautiful volley which gave Barreto no chance.
Buoyed by the late equalizer, the home side searched for a winner in the dying minutes and it was Jamil’s men who found themselves under increasing pressure but the Kolkata side held on for the draw.