It was not the best of performances by East Bengal. And still, they managed to trump Shillong Lajong 3-1 away from home. Lajong dominated the lion's share of the game and yet not for a moment did East Bengal look out of their wits.
Alejandro Menendez's men remained patient and stuck to the basics. They weathered the initial flurry of Lajong attacks and against the run of play, struck at the first opportunity that befell them. Lalrindika Ralte curled in a perfect delivery with his left foot and Jobby Justin made no mistake to bury his header into the net. It was a textbook header as the Keralite got in front of his marker Novin Gurung and dispatched the ball into the top corner leaving, teenage 'keeper Neithovilie Chalieu rooted to his spot.
In spite of going down, Aizawl's spirit never dampened. The Men in Red were playing some scintillating football at the centre of the park. The midfield combined well with the two strikers in front and they were able to weave through the jungle of legs. Didika and Kamalpreet Singh were unable to contain Lajong and both Enrique Esqueda and Jobby Justin dropped deep in turns to help their team-mates.
To complicate matters Lajong's wingbacks Rakesh Pradhan and Novin Gurung always surged forward with their overlapping runs, providing an alternative avenue to reach the goalmouth if they were thwarted down the middle. But once Lajong reached the attacking third they would either run out of ideas or hit the East Bengal's defensive wall of Borja Gomez and Jhonny Acosta. The two centre-backs have been rock solid and seem to have stitched up a good understanding.
The defensive organisation was brilliant as they sat deep when required and yet did not shy away from maintaining a high line to catch Naorem Mahesh Singh and Samuel Lalmuanpuia offside when Lajong were looking to utilise the space beyond the defence. Both fullbacks Lalram Chullova and Manoj Mohammad had another impressive outing as they kept a tight check on Pradhan and Gurung respectively. Under pressure, Pradhan failed to replicate his fantastic performance from matchday one as most of his crosses were either too close to the goalkeeper or had too much weight to remain in play.
Mahesh who was the breakout star against Aizawl started brightly as he was able to play some good give-and-goes on the right flank with Hnamte and Samuel but bowed down to the quality of Perez and Acosta in defence as the duo did not give him a yard to shoot from distance.
In the 41st minute, East Bengal went 2-0 up courtesy of Justin's second goal of the night which pointed the lack of experience and defensive frailty of this Lajong team. The fact that Justin and Esqueda were allowed to exchange passes within a few yards apart within the penalty box holds Lajong's marking in poor light. When Esqueda was busy overpowering Kenstar Kharsong, Justin had slipped his marker Aibanbha Dohling. The 22-year-old defender was more interested to be a spectator from close range while completely forgetting his duty to mark Justin even after getting beaten in the air just seconds before which allowed the exchange of passes to take place in the first place.
A few questions (valid) were being raised about the lack of a match-winning second striker. But after Justin's brace against Lajong, the clamouring for striking reinforcement will subside, albeit temporarily as the 24-year-old forward has shown glimpses of brilliance in the past but has failed to find consistency in front of goal.
East Bengal's chink in the armour
It was no doubt a measured and organised defensive performance from the Red and Golds. And if Menendez needs to be concerned about anything, it is about holding the fort during set-pieces. Lajong looked decisive during set-pieces and their solitary goal also came from Pradhan's header of a corner taken by Samuel.
The left-back skipped his marker Didika and rose the highest to get a glancing touch on the ball with his head giving Borja no chance in the air. Again in the 86th minute, it was faulty man-marking on East Bengal's part which allowed Aiban to get his header away. Acosta is known for his aerial heroics and instead of him marking the tall defender, it was Manoj and Didika who were keeping an eye on the Lajong centre-back.
East Bengal have overcome two of the dreaded fixtures with assuring performances. If Esqueda stole the show against NEROCA it was certainly his partner up front who hogged the limelight against Lajong. This team looks like a unit who knows how to rake up the three points come what may. They have got off to a flying start and now it remains to be seen whether they can carry forward the momentum till the business end of the league.