Mahindra is just a point behind East Bengal
MUMBAI: Surkumar Singh was chosen `man of the match' for dogged defending and overlapping ability as Mahindra United's defence held sway in a 1-0 win over East Bengal in an action-packed 10th NFL game at the Cooperage on Thursday.
Yusif Yakubu converted a penalty kick with a calm, low placement to the left corner as the Mumbai team picked up three valuable points against the league leader.
Mahindra moved into second spot, with 26 points off 12 games, as every player on the field put his best foot forward even after exhaustion had set in. East Bengal's 27 points ensure table-topper status after the same number of matches but rivals are closing in.
The difference between the teams was defensive support for the goalkeepers. Surkumar, Deepak Mondal, Mahesh Gawli and lion-hearted Peter Siddique teamed up to muzzle a classy East Bengal strike force, where Baichung Bhutia, Alvito D'Cunha and Mike Okoro can be more than handful for any set of defenders.
Naseem Akhtar, a former Mahindra player now donning East Bengal colours, was outstanding under the bar but his defence let him down.
Anupam Sarkar positioning himself to control a high lob near the left post ended up handling the ball in panic, perhaps sensing a Mahindra striker lurking nearby when there was none. Referee Pradeep Kumar pointed to the spot in the 18th minute and Yakubu tapped home.
Mahindra lost key playmaker Steven Dias to injury and substitute Jose Barreto limped out five minutes after coming on to play in the second half. Captain S. Venkatesh enacted the livewire role expected from him, holding the midfield together with the resourceful K. Ajayan. The two also fell back to help out the defence.
"We concentrated on packing the middle, denying space to move and succeeded in playing to the plan. It was teamwork at its best," said Mahindra coach Derrick Pereira, for whom injuries is a worrying factor.
The team, shuttling between the NFL and Asian Football Confederation Cup, has the bench-strength to pull through with Surajit Bose, Sushanth Mathew, K Anees, David Adjei and Jinto Jose.
East Bengal coach Philippe Ridder did not attend the post-match media briefing.