Real Kashmir FC had a small but vociferous crowd behind them but had a man less on the turf as East Bengal notched a 2-1 win to keep their slender title hopes alive in the I-League here Thursday. On the other hand, the result at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium put paid to Real Kashmir's aspirations of winning the league on their maiden season in top-flight.
Originally slated to be held in Srinagar, the match was shifted to the national capital two days ago in view of the prevailing "uncertainty" in the Kashmir valley following the Pulwama terror attack. Enrique Esqueda (20') opened the scoring while Jaime Santos found the net in the 43rd minute, the Spanish duo giving the visitors a 2-0 buffer going into the second half.
Aaron Katebe (67') pulled one back for the 'home' team when he converted from the spot, but that was not enough to salvage something for the hosts. East Bengal is second in the standings with 36 points while Real Kashmir is out of the race with 33 points. A win against Churchill Brothers on Friday, though, will be enough for Chennai City FC to claim their maiden title.
While the Kolkata heavyweights controlled the first half, they seemed a bit rattled in the second, especially after Katebe hit the back of the net, Real Kashmir created a couple of clear-cut chances that went begging. Real Kashmir's biggest chance came in the 87th minute but Mason Robertson, son of coach David, failed to equalise despite having the entire goal at his mercy.
In a last-ditch attempt, Robertson replaced Bazie Armand with Gnohore Krizo in the 82nd minute, but the sub could not get the goal the coach and his team wanted. These were after Real Kashmir got a lifeline through a strike by Katebe, who was felled by the goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar. Before that, Esqueda headed home from a Laldanmawia Ralte cross to hand his team the lead, and it was no surprise considering East Bengal's domination. Playing what was supposed to be their home game at a neutral venue, Real Kashmir were reduced to 10 men when Abednedo Kofi Tetteh was sent off as he mouthed something to the referee after committing a foul on Jhonny Acosta around the half-an-hour mark. East Bengal dealt Real Kashmir another blow when Jaime Santos unleashed a brilliant volley off an Esqueda pass following a good build-up.
It could have been 3-0 East Bengal just before half time had it not been for a fine save by Bilal Khan following a Danmawia Ralte's shot at the goal of Lalrindika Ralte's cross. Robertson made two changes to his side that drew 2-2 against Indian Arrows in their last match. Krizo and Farhan Ganie were relegated to the bench as Abednego Tetteh and Vicky Metei started ahead of them. While Alejandro Menendez made three changes to the side that dropped points against Aizawl FC, bringing in Manoj Mohammad, Salam Ranjan Singh and Brandon Vanlalremdika in place of Kamalpreet Singh, Jhonny Acosta, and the suspended Jobby Justin.
"Obviously, it is disappointing. We shook things up in the second half. My players have been fantastic. We knew we have to be strong defensively. As a new club, we didn't lose any match by big margins. The whole season has been fantastic as we beat Mohun Bagan and Chennai City twice," Real Kashmir gaffer Robertson said.
He added, "This stadium is not like our home ground, but more like Salt Lake. It has been brilliant working with my players who never complain."Menedez said they will wait for Chennai City's game on Friday and then think about the next assignment. "There are many key points (in the title race). Tomorrow, Chennai have a tough fixture. If they lose, then we will see what happens next," Menendez said.