HASC's relegation from the I-League was all but confirmed on Saturday after a spirited yet disappointingly narrow draw with East Bengal at the Bangalore Football Stadium here.
Although the airmen turned in what was comfortably their best performance at home, the 1-1 result left them at the bottom of the table, on 21 points, needing a massive win in the final league match against Dempo with the added requirement of other sides suffering defeats.
Xavier Vijayakumar was at the vanguard of the HASC effort, scoring a spectacular goal eight minutes from time to cancel out Ravinder Singh's 76th minute strike. Sandip Nandy was outstanding in goal for the visitor, denying HASC time after time with splendid saves from close range.
The result also scotched East Bengal's chances, although only mathematical in the first place, of winning the league. “We were mentally tired today,” felt coach Trevor Morgan.
“We made so many basic mistakes in the first half. We weren't sharp enough; HASC played for its life and thoroughly deserved the point.”
His counterpart M. Muralidharan, meanwhile, rued the lost opportunity. “We played well today. This was our chance; we missed it.”
Invigorated by the newly-laid synthetic turf here, perhaps, after weeks of struggle at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, the host went toe to toe with East Bengal in the opening minutes of the match.
Chances arrived at a frenetic pace at either end, with Jagaba Hamza enjoying HASC's first. Put through by Vijayakumar, the Nigerian rounded the goalkeeper, but found he had dragged the ball too wide of the goalmouth to be able to score.
Hamza had a similar chance not long after, with Malengamba Meitei the provider, but the big striker's touch again let him down. Tolgay Ozbey, Sushil Kumar Singh, and Baljit Sahni led East Bengal's forward forays but could muster little of consequence, remaining limited to shooting opportunities from outside the area.
HASC continued to hold its high defensive line even in the second half, frustrating an opposition that endured one offside call after another.
Vijayakumar went close five minutes after the break, drifting in from the right side of midfield before unleashing a fierce shot that drew the first of several fine saves from Nandy.
The duo was at it two minutes later, with Nandy palming away the attacker's strike from just beyond the penalty spot. HASC's adventurism, however, cost it a goal 14 minutes from time.
Sahni drove into the box on one of East Bengal's counter-attacking raids, squaring the ball towards a mass of bodies where Ravinder tapped the ball in.
Vijayakumar equalised in the 82nd minute, dropping his shoulder to beat a defender on the right-hand side of the area before curling the ball into the top-corner with his left foot, but it was to be of little consequence in the grand scheme of things.
The result:HASC 1 (Xavier Vijayakumar 82) drew with East Bengal (Ravinder Singh 76).