East Bengal defeats NorthEast United on penalties to reach the Durand Cup final

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East Bengal completed a turnaround to book a berth in the 2023 Durand Cup final

East Bengal has advanced to the final of the 2023 Durand Cup by defeating fellow ISL side NorthEast United 5-3 on penalties after a 2-2 draw at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Kirirangan in Kolkata.

The Highlanders made five changes to the side that defeated the Indian Army in the first quarter-final with the likes of Asheer Akhtar, Mohammed Ali Bemammer, Manvir Singh, Parthib Gogoi, and Nestor Albiach coming in for Gaurav Bora, Gani Nigam, Redeem Tlang, Chhara, and Ibson Melo.

On the other hand, Carles Cuadrat rung only two changes with Mandar Rao Dessai and Jose Pardo coming in for the duo of Souvik Chakrabarti and Borja Herrera.

Both sides had bright starts to the game with Parthib Gogoi’s early shot going off-target while long balls from the East Bengal players were constantly troubling the Highlanders’ defense.

The match flared a bit earlier than expected as the referee booked both Saul Crespo and Romain Phillipoteaux after a challenge from Phalguni Singh on Saul.

Around the 20th minute, Parthib Gogoi’s cross was cleared twice by Harmanjot Khabra as the East Bengal skipper was trying to calm the nerves of his side. But a couple of minutes later, Phalguni cut in from the left flank and delivered a pitch-perfect cross for Miguel Zabaco and the Spaniard headed the ball past Prabhsukhan Gill into the back of the net.

In the 26th minute, Naorem Mahesh Singh found Javier Siverio in the penalty box with a good cross but the former Hyderabad striker failed to get his footing right and headed the ball out of play for a goal kick.

Just before the half-hour mark, Zabaco fouled Siviero and became the third player to be booked on the evening. A couple of minutes later, East Bengal tried to probe the NorthEast United defense but poor quality in the final passes meant that Mirshad Michu was able to collect the ball calmly in his palms.

After a corner routine, Siverio headed the ball down in the path of a teammate whose powerful shot was rebuffed by Mirshad as the former East Bengal goalkeeper was determined to keep his clean sheet against his former club.

In the next minute, Mandar crossed the ball into the penalty area and Siviero rose above the defenders to meet the ball but failed to keep it on target. The Red and Gold Brigade were persistent in getting their first goal as Mahesh tried to skip past multiple defenders and get in a shooting position but Asheer came in with a crunching tackle to deny the Indian international.

NorthEast United head coach Juan Pedro Benali was shown a yellow card after an altercation with the fourth referee and that was the last highlight of the first half as Benali’s side went into the break with a 1-0 lead numbing the supporters present in the stadium.

Debutant Pardo and Nishu Kumar were replaced before the start of the second half as Souvik and Borja replaced the duo who did not turn up in playing jerseys after the interval. 

Borja taking up the mantle of playing in the No.10 position almost paid off instantly but a tame shot from Naorem Mahesh after a good attacking move was easily collected by the Highlanders’ custodian.

After a challenge on Gogoi was ignored by the referee, Dinesh Singh was shown a yellow card for fouling Naorem Mahesh. At that instant, Benali made his first change of the night as Melo was introduced in place of Nestor Albiach.

Naorem Mahesh found the unmarked Nandhakumar Sekar in the penalty area with a good cross but the former Odisha winger took too much time before deciding to unleash a shot which was easily blocked by the Highlanders’ defense.

Phalguni Singh created one goal and scored the other for his team

A precise long ball from Todonba Singh found Phalguni on the right wing and the youngster cut in on his left foot and curled his shot that found the bottom left corner leaving Gill rooted to his position.

After going two goals down, Cuadrat introduced Cleiton Silva and Gursimrat Gill in place of Jordan Elsey and Harmanjot Khabra pointing to a shift in formation for the remaining half hour in the match.

In the 67th minute, Phalguni teed up skipper Phillipoteaux but the Frenchman couldn’t curl his shot inside the far post and that was the last contribution from the silky attacker as Phalguni and Manvir Singh were taken off for Gani Nigam and Thoi Singh with one eye on the final.

East Bengal got their much-deserved first goal of the evening as Saul darted into the box and cut back the ball to Naorem Mahesh whose shot was deflected off Dinesh and completely outsmarted Mirshad in goal.

An extra defender in Gaurav Bora was introduced as a reaction to the goal with Phillipoteaux handing over the armband to the Delhi-born player while going off the pitch. 

In the 83rd minute, Nandhakumar got forward on the left wing and placed a delicious ball across the six-yard box but none of the East Bengal forwards were able to meet the ball wasting another opportunity on the evening.

With less than five minutes remaining on the clock, Nadhakumar’s shot was parried away by Mirshad and Bora stopped Siverio from getting to the rebound and cleared the lines for his side.

Eight minutes were added to the clock by the fourth referee and Chakravarti fouled Thoi Singh on the edge of the penalty area gifting a free-kick to the Highlanders which was wasted by Nigam with an off-target shot.

Goalscorer Zabaco was shown a second yellow card of the day for a mistimed challenge on Siverio and the Highlanders had to survive the last two minutes of added time with 10 men. From the resulting free-kick, Siverio’s header was saved well by Mirshad but Silva found the unmarked Nandhakumar and he found the back of the net to take the proceedings to penalties.

To begin the penalty shootout, stand-in skipper Cleiton Silva found the bottom right corner and Ibson Melo hit the same side taking the score to 1-1. Crespo also found the back of the net after a stuttering run-up and Nigam did the same to Gill to make it 2-2 in penalties.

Borja also found the back of the net for East Bengal but Parthib Gogoi’s tame shot was saved by Gill who was encroaching the line and Gogoi got another shot but the youngster hit his shot into the crossbar. The experienced Naorem Mahesh sent Mirshad the wrong way to make it 4-2.

Pragyan Gogoi kept the battle alive by making it 4-3 and Nandhakumar wrapped things up in fashion sealing the final berth for Cuadrat’s men.

The Torchbearers will be playing their first final in the competition since 2004 when they defeated Mohun Bagan to lift the prestigious trophy. A rematch of the 2004 Durand Cup final could be witnessed in Kolkata on Sunday if Mohun Bagan Super Giant defeats Goa in the second semi-final on Thursday.

It marks the end of the Durand Cup journey for NorthEast United who got this far for the first time in the prestigious competition but will have to wait another year if they want to be a part of the final fixture of the tournament.