East Bengal keep playoff hopes alive with a 4-2 win against Kerala Blasters

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Naorem Mahesh Singh had an excellent match for East Bengal

In the last fixture of Matchday 20 of the 2023-24 Indian Super League season, East Bengal gave Kerala Blasters a 2-4 drubbing at the Tuskers’ home ground in Kochi. Saul Crespo and Naorem Mahesh Singh struck braces for the visitors, while for the home side, Fedor Cernych scored a goal and Hijazi Maher unfortunately conceded an own goal.

Kerala Blasters head coach Ivan Vukomanovic made four changes to the team that drew 1-1 against Jamshedpur. Ruivah Hormipam, Jeakson Singh, Daisuke Sakai, and Cernych were handed starts with Milos Drincic, Danish Farooq, Mohammed Aimen, and Justine Emmanuel making way for them respectively.

On the other hand, East Bengal head coach Carles Cuadrat made three changes to the team that lost 1-3 against Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the Kolkata Derby. Mohamad Rakip, Sayan Banerjee and Vishnu PV started at the expense of Lalchungnunga, Ajay Chhetri, and Nandhakumar Sekar.

The game had a brisk start as East Bengal got their first chance in just the 3rd minute. Mahesh darted down the left flank before launching a grounded cross which was tipped away by Karanjit Singh, but the rebound fell for Cleiton Silva. The East Bengal captain struck a shot on target, but Naocha Singh made a superb block to prevent an early goal for the Torchbearers.

The Brazilian striker had another good opportunity in the 10th minute, where the move started when Vishnu put on the afterburners down the right flank before finding Silva with a diagonal pass, and the latter did well to make room for a right-footed attempt. Unfortunately, the shot was narrowly wide.

The missed chances ultimately came back to haunt East Bengal, as Kerala Blasters took the lead slightly against the run of play in the 23rd minute. Rahul KP played a harmless ball which should have been easily dealt with by Aleksandar Pantic but the Serbian central defender made a meal of it and ended up missing the ball completely. Goalkeeper Prabhsukhan Singh Gill could not gather the ball either leaving Cernych through on goal with the easiest of tasks to tuck the ball into a completely empty net.

The next few minutes did not produce any further clear-cut openings, but there was no shortage of drama. Jeakson, who was already booked for a clumsy challenge just before the half-hour mark, lost his head just before half-time as he went barging in on Mahesh. The referee rightfully showed him the second yellow card, reducing the home team to ten men.

In the additional time of the first half, East Bengal was given the glorious chance of scoring an equalizer by Karanjit. Silva threaded a wonderful pass for Vishnu, who had lost his marker Naocha and darted into the box before being brought down by the veteran goalkeeper. Since Silva missed the penalty against MBSG, Crespo took the responsibility on his shoulder and made no mistake in making the scoreline 1-1.

Like the first half, East Bengal created the first chance of the second half just four minutes after the resumption. Mahesh played a ball between two players in yellow which found Silva, but Karanjit somewhat made amends by making a decent save.

In the 53rd minute, two former Kerala Blasters players nearly combined to pull off a second goal for the Torchbearers. Harmanjot Singh Khabra played a brilliant diagonal ball that found Nishu Kumar in acres of space, but the left-back could not keep his shot on target.

Kerala Blasters nearly made East Bengal rue their missed chances for the second time in this match as they came close to scoring in the 60th minute. Receiving a pass from Mohammed Azhar, Rahul found Dimitrios Diamantakos whose venomous attempt rattled the crossbar but did not change the scoreline.

Saul Crespo proved how vital he is to East Bengal’s plans

Instead, a calamitous piece of goalkeeping and defending gifted East Bengal the lead in the 70th minute. Receiving a pass from Sandeep Singh, Karanjit tried to find Marko Leskovic but under-hit his pass. The Croatian defender was also caught napping as the young Aman CK snatched the ball off his feet and played it to the path of Crespo, who scored the team’s second goal as well.

To make matters even worse for Vukomanovic’s team, Naocha had a brain fade moment just three minutes after East Bengal’s goal. After getting a nudge from Aman, the young left-back headbutted his opponent and was handed marching orders by the referee.

That sending-off opened up the floodgates for the visitors, who nearly took advantage of it in the 81st minute. Rakip found substitute Felicio Brown Forbes unmarked inside the box with an accurate cross, but the Hertha BSC academy graduate could only hit the woodwork with his header.

The insurance goal finally arrived just a minute later. Playing a one-two with Silva, Mahesh got into the box and struck a curling attempt which might have been going out, but was headed into the net by Sakai. The official records still credited the Indian winger for the goal.

The game was not over yet as Maher brought Kerala Blasters back into it with an own goal in the 84th minute. Saurav Mandal spread a ball wide for Sandeep, who launched a cross from the right flank which should have been easily cleared away but the Jordanian central defender ended up guiding it into his own net.

Fortunately for him, the mistake did not come back to haunt East Bengal as they scored their fourth goal in the 87th minute. Victor Vazquez showed a glimpse of his class as he found Mahesh inside the box with a nonchalant lob before the winger scored his second of the night.

It could easily have been five goals for the away side if only Forbes had just a bit of luck on his side. Receiving a pass from Mahesh in additional time, the Costa Rican striker did well to outmuscle his marker Hormipam before pulling the trigger, but he struck the woodwork once again.With this win, East Bengal has climbed to the 7th position with 21 points from 20 matches. They will now take on Bengaluru in a virtual pre quarter-final fixture on Sunday. Kerala Blasters remain in the 5th position in the league standings with 30 points from 20 matches and will be up against NorthEast United on Saturday.