Real Kashmir strode to the top of the I-League, their journey to the summit after Friday’s 1-1 draw against East Bengal again highlighting how resolute defence usually overtrumps attacking flair in such competitions. Lalram Chullova’s self-goal in the 46th minute put the visitors ahead; Jobby Justin cancelled it in the 56th.
After Friday’s games, which also had NEROCA beating Mohun Bagan 2-1, three teams are on 18 points with Real Kashmir’s goal difference of +7 putting them in pole position above NEROCA and Chennai City. In fourth place is East Bengal with 16 points. The I-League may be forced on its last legs but it continues to rage against the dying of the light.
The players tall and sturdy like the chinar trees back home and their football sometimes as rugged as the terrain there, it was East Bengal’s turn to find out why Real Kashmir have been difficult to break down.
There is no subtlety, no nuanced layers to their game but by keeping their defensive shape, Real Kashmir showed why they have been unbeaten in their last six games, winning four including upending I-League leaders Chennai City FC away.
Leading from the back was Nigerian central defender Loveday Okechukwu. With Farhan Ganie, one of the three Kashmiris in the starting line-up along with goalie Bilal Khan and wide left Danish Farooq, and Bazie Armand in front of the back four and the midfield staying close to the defence, Real Kashmir contained East Bengal who came into this game with three successive wins.
There was a slip in the eighth minute when Aaron Katebe, slotted in place of the reliable central defender Mason Robertson, failed to intercept a Justin pass while backtracking but Jaime Colado, East Bengal’s twinkle-toed forward shot like he was aiming for the floodlights at the Salt Lake stadium. Colado also headed too close to Khan in the 84th minute. In the 32nd minute, Brandon Vanlalremdika failed to connect after Colado and Laldanmawia Ralte combined to free him.
But for the rest of the game, East Bengal, despite the increasing influence of Spanish coach Alejandro Menendez evident in the way they keep the ball on the floor and try to find space through the middle, were reined in.
But for shooting too close to East Bengal’s big goalie Rakshit Dagar, Real Kashmir could have sneaked in front. Surchandra Singh was involved in both attempts setting up Abednedo Koffi for the first and shooting the second after Dagar had botched up a clearance by finding him.
Sneak in front Real Kashmir did, 10 seconds into the second half when Chullova, who along with Laldanmawaia Ralte were not at their best in working the right side of East Bengal’s attack, misdirected Singh’s delivery into his goal. The equaliser came in the 56th minute when Lalrindika Ralte’s corner-kick was headed into goal by Kassim Aidara but cleared off the line by Farooq. Only as far as Justin who peeled away to celebrate his sixth goal of the competition.