East Bengal reached the Durand Cup final, defeating NorthEast United FC 5-3 on penalties in the first semi-final, after the match ended 2-2 at the end of 90 minutes of regulation time.
After stunning the home-side at Kolkata’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan with two strikes on either side of each half, the red and golds struck late in the game and then again in added time to take the game to penalties.
Parthib Gogoi missed his penalty, despite getting two bites of the cherry, as EEB scored all five to make yet another Cup final.
The 16-time winners now await the winners of the second semi-final between Mohun Bagan Super Giant and FC Goa on Thursday, to know who meets them in the final on September 3.
The red and golds’ Carles Cuadrat began with Jordan Elsey, Mandar Rao Desai, Chungnunga and Harmanjot Khabra manning the defense and Jose Pardo and Nishu Kumar playing in the hole between defence and midfield. He made two key changes to his quarter-final 11, including Jose Pardo and Mandar in place of Borja and Souvik Chakrabarti, which he would have to reverse later as things got hot in the second-half.
Cuadrat’s Spanish countryman Juan Benali on the other hand made as many as five changes to the 11 which began against the Indian Army team in the quarters. Moroccan Mohammed Bemammar and Spaniard Nestor Roger were brought in to strengthen the midfield and forward line, while the experience of Asheer Akhtar was preferred in a big game to assist the trio of Dinesh, Tondomba and Miguel at the back. Parthib Gogoi, who has been in good goal scoring form was also expectedly given a start after a rest in the last game.
The home-side fired the first bullet at the quarter-hour mark, when a Pardo attempted from distance, but Mirshad, the Highlanders keeper was up to it and brought about a full-length diving save.
The Highlanders responded and how. A corner taken by Phalguni Singh was cleared away by Elsey but found its way back to him from Tondomba. A measured delivery inside the box saw central defender Miguel dive in front of the six-yard box and deflect a header away from a full-stretch Prabhsukan Gill and into the EEB goal.
The Highlanders took the lead to the break Cuadrat did not waste time in bringing back Borja and Souvik at the start of the second-half in place of Pardo and Nishu. Five minutes into the half and the Highlanders also made their first change, bringing in Brazilian Ibson De Melo in place of Nestor.
EEB were the more probing in the half to begin with, with Mahesh and Mandar creating most of the forays from the left flank. But the goal came yet again for the Highlanders and Phalguni this time scored himself with a brilliant solo goal.
From a free-kick which Phalguni himself had taken, the EEB defense cleared the ball away but only as far as Tondomba again in the middle of the park, who relayed it back to Phalguni on the right flank. The diminutive winger drove in with deft outside and inside dodges and then executed a clinical finish with his left, placing it past Gill, who was beaten on the dive for a second time.
At the hour-mark, Cuadrat went into full-attack mode, bringing on Cleiton Silva and Gursimrat in placed of defenders Khabra and Elsey. Benali too made a double change, resting Phalguni and Manvir and bringing on Thoi Singh and Gani Nigam in their stead.
EEB then got a goal back with just over 10 minutes to go in the game, when Naorem Mahesh Singh’s shot on target from inside the Highlanders’ box, took a deflection off Dinesh Singh to wrong-foot Mirshad and go in.
Drama was yet to unfold as right after Miguel was sent off for a second bookable offence in added time, EEB struck from the resulting free-kick. Borja took it and aimed at Siverio on the right of goal but his header was warded off by Mirshad and it fell on the other side for Cleiton Silva. The Brazilian looked up and crossed for Nandhakumar, whose well-directed header beat Mirshad. It was time for the first ever penalty shoot-out of the tournament.
Cleiton scored from the first spot-kick and so did his countryman Ibson for the Highlanders. Crespo also calmly converted EEB’s second from the spot and so did Gani for the visitors. Borja was next for the red and golds and even he converted but Parthib Gogoi then missed twice. First, after Gill had saved his shot and then a second-time he hit the bar, when he got another chance after Gill was adjudged to have crossed the goal line before Parthib’s first shot.
Mahesh maintained EEB’s 100% record with their fourth and Pragyan Gogoi also converted leaving Nandhakumar with the responsibility of converting the fifth to reach a record 27th final and he duly obliged.
Speaking at the post-match press conference, Juan Benali the vanquished Highlanders gaffer said, “Well I enjoyed the match but I didn’t enjoy the result. We play football but there are many elements that we cannot play against. We are a big team too. We stopped East Bengal in their home. Not only Phalguni there are many good players in the team. I am proud to play in the Durand Cup. This tournament helps to know the players in the team. We played good football and I am proud of my boys. If you see the football history then you will see big players missing penalty. So, it will make Parthib a strong player. He has to learn from it.”
Carles Cuadrat, visibly happy and relieved, said, “It’s pre-season. We have played five tough games so fresh legs needed to be introduced. But you all saw how we ended the game and I am happy with the result. We are going to miss Souvik Chakraborty in the final match due to his second yellow card today. But today we show never say die attitude. This East Bengal is a changed East Bengal. In today’s match we believed that we can do and yes we proved that by winning the match. I am prepared for the final now. I am happy for the Club as they reached the final after 19 years. So now it’s just one final and again after a long time EB is in the final and I am happy for it.”