I-League: East Bengal suffer jolt in title race with 1-1 Churchill draw
Kolkata, Feb 17 (IANS) East Bengal failed to level points with leaders Chennai City FC after playing a 1-1 draw against fellow title aspirant Churchill Brothers in an I-League match at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, here on Sunday.
The league's top scorer Willis Plaza fired the visitors ahead in the 68th minute to take his tally to 18 goals. But Kassim Aidara pulled one back (78th) 10 minutes later to push the red and golds to second spot with 32 points from 16 matches.
Real Kashmir FC, scheduled to take on defending champions Minerva Punjab FC on Monday at home, have the same number of points with East Bengal but have inferior goal difference. On head to head count, they played a 1-1 draw here in December last year.
Churchill Brothers handed a debut to just-signed Cote D'Ivoire forward Christ Remi who replaced injured Dawda Ceesay in the squad.
East Bengal's Spanish coach Alejandro Menendez named the same XI, which thrashed Shillong Lajong FC 5-0 in their last match here.
It was a cagey affair in the opening exchanges with both teams taking a safety-first approach. Churchill looked compact in midfield and did not allow East Bengal midfielders space to make inroads.
The first chance of the game came in the 14th minute when Churchill' Chesterpoul Lyngdoh's long range attempt flew inches over the crossbar.
At the half-hour mark, in-form Enrique Esqueda shot over after the Mexican was set up by Lalrindika Ralte inside the box.
The biggest chance of the half fell to Antonio Dovale after Esqueda cutback for the Spaniard, but visiting goalkeeper Vigneshwaran Baskaran pulled off a stunning save to keep him and East Bengal at bay minutes before halftime.
After the break, last match's hat-trick hero Laldanmawia Ralte was surprisingly taken off in the 54th minute for Brandon Vanlalremdika. An ineffective Dovale was also replaced by Jaime Colado.
But despite the tweaking, Churchill were rewarded for pressing game eight minutes after the hour-mark. Plaza got on the scoresheet against his old club after Nicholas Fernandes set him up with a through ball, which the Trinidadian tapped in.
East Bengal's Borja Gomez was at fault for allowing too much space to Plaza in front of the goal.
East Bengal did not take much time to respond, Kassim Aidara nodding in a stunning Lalrindika Ralte free-kick. The hosts kept the pressure on Churchill's backline after Lalrindika's equaliser but failed to score a winning goal as the visitors defended valiantly.