Enrique Esqueda struck twice with his clinical headers as East Bengal came from behind to down Neroca 2-1 and continue their surge for a maiden I-League title in Kolkata on Thursday.
The Mexican, who had suffered a rib injury, turned it around for East Bengal single-handedly with his goals in the 67th and 86th minutes after coming off the bench.
East Bengal found the going tough at the Salt Lake Stadium, conceding a third minute goal with former Bengaluru FC striker Chencho Gyeltshen scoring on his debut from a Katsumi Yusa assist.
But as it turned out Esqueda, who had struck a brace in the first leg, once again proved to be the difference. At fourth place, East Bengal are now two points behind second-placed Chennai City, the two teams with 14 matches each, even as debutants Real Kashmir lead the table with 32 points from 16 matches.
Having blanked them 2-0 in the first leg with Esqueda scoring both the goals, East Bengal thus did a double on last season’s runners-up. Down 0-1 at the break, Alejandro Menendez, who fielded an unchanged eleven, brought in Esqueda in place of Toni Dovale in the 58th minute.
East Bengal soon took charge of the proceedings and won the second half comprehensively as the Imphal outfit looked to have shut their shops, adopting a defensive approach. With Neroca going deep into the defence, East Bengal displayed fine creativity in the midfield spacing out the opponents back-line.
Minutes after coming on the pitch, Esqueda got a 35-yard free-kick but he shot well over the bar. Acosta then sent a curling cross but Varney Kallon intercepted the ball in the air. Esqueda finally equalised for East Bengal with Jaime Santos sending a curling cross inside the box which the Mexican converted with a clinical header.
Chencho scored on his debut for Neroca. Katsumi floated the corner but Rakshit failed to collect the ball. Didika accidentally passed the ball to Bhutanese who found the back of the net.
Esqueda’s attempt from a freekick then went over in the 65th minute. A couple of minutes later, Santos found himself unmarked in the left-flank and he set it up for Esqueda inside the box.
With Jobby Justin by his side, the Mexican went under the ball, timed his jump to perfection before putting it past goalkeeper Lalit Thapa with a swerving header. It was yet another collective effort for East Bengal to snatch the lead when substitute Brandon Vanlalremdika passed the ball to Samad Ali Mallick on the edge of the box.
The ball reached Esqueda after a deflection as the Mexican once again found himself at the right position, at the right time to bring up the winning header.