Kolkata, Feb 25 (IANS) East Bengal’s title aspirations suffered a huge blow as they were held to a 1-1 draw by 10-man Aizawl FC in an I-League encounter at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan here on Monday.
Relegation-threatened Aizawl, placed ninth on the points table, took a shock lead in the 23rd minute riding Leonce Dodoz’s goal.
East Bengal responded in the second half through in-form Mexican striker Enrique Esqueda in the 65th minute but failed to find the all-important winner which could have taken them to within five points of leaders Chennai City FC with a game in hand.
But courtesy the draw, the red and golds now find themselves seven points adrift of Chennai who are on 40 points after 18 matches.
East Bengal, 33 points from 17 games, now take on third placed Real Kashmir who also have 33 points from 17 outings.
Kareem Nurain was sent off in the 70th minute but the home side still found it hard to score the winner with Jobby Justin finding the woodwork in second half added time.
East Bengal, missing the services of World Cupper Jhonny Acosta due to suspension, handed Salam Ranjan Singh a start to partner Borja Gomez in central defence.
Spaniard Toni Dovale was also relegated to the bench to accommodate Jaime Santos as the hosts went in with only four foreigners.
For the visitors, Govin Singh’s suspension meant Kareem Omolaja came in the mix with F.lal Remsanga also getting a start.
Salam Ranjan Singh did not have a good start to the game as his mistimed clearance in the ninth minute fell to Alfred Jaryan who set Kromah in the clear but Lalram Chullova closed the Liberian down in time to see the shot go wide.
Minutes later, Jaime Santos wasted an opportunity as he dilly dallied inside the box for Juuko Kassaga to intercept.
East Bengal paid the price for their poor defending as Alfred Jaryan’s cross found Dodoz behind Salam Ranjan Singh as the Ivorian beat the offside trap and chipped the ball past an onrushing East Bengal goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar into the net.
East Bengal tried to use the width of the pitch to equalise as quickly as possible with Laldanmawia Ralte’s cross-shot from outside the box tipped away by visiting keeper Lalawmpuia for a corner.
Jaime Santos swung in a delectable cross but both Esqueda and Laldanmawia could not get a touch on the ball.
East Bengal spent a considerable amount of time in the Aizawl arc but the visitors defended doggedly to go into halftime with a 1-0 lead.
It could have been 2-0 had Kromah’s goal been allowed by the referee after the Liberian snatched the ball from Dagar’s hands at the time of release.
After the break, Dodoz was close to doubling his tally as he dribbled past Borja Gomez and Manjo Mohammed only to force a fine save from Dagar to keep him at bay.
Home team coach Alejandro Menedez threw in Samad Ali Mallick for Mohammed and Dovale replaced Laldanmawia as East Bengal desperately looked for the leveller.
The pair almost immediately made an impact by exchanging passes to set up Esqueda inside the box only for Lalawmpuia to get to the ball first.
Lalawmpuia was called into action again when he brilliantly punched away Borja Gomez’s header from a Lalrindika Ralte corner.
East Bengal finally got the goal they were looking for. Samad swung in a cross for Esqueda inside the box and just as Lalawmpuia failed to get to the ball, the Mexican beat marker Kareem Nurain to head the ball in.
Nurain took out his frustration on Justin by kicking the striker as tempers flared with both sets of players clashing with each other.
Nurain, already booked for his challenge on Justin, picked up a second yellow card for dissent and was given his marching orders. East Bengal’s Borja Gomez was booked too.
East Bengal came close to finding the winner on a number of occasions, the closest being Justin hitting the post with the ball bouncing off the keeper.