East Bengal books semifinal berth

East Bengal's star striker Baichung Bhutia gets past Majek Bolaji of Dempo in their Durand Cup match in New Delhi on Thursday.  

NEW DELHI NOV. 6. Recovering from a long spell of ineffective play, East Bengal slammed three goals in the second half against Dempo to qualify for the semifinals in the 116th Durand football tournament at the Ambedkar Stadium here on Thursday.

The defending champion had nothing to show in the first half, except for a yellow card for its captain Baichung Bhutia, whose frustrated reaction was not well received by the Services referee A. Arjunan.

In contrast, Dempo looked to have the edge as it made a few attempts, though most of it was unconvincing in front of the competent East Bengal goalkeeper Sangram Mukherjee.

The East Bengal goalkeeper was in his elements midway through the first half as he thwarted a string of attempts from close range from Mario Soares, Sunday Seah and R.C. Prakash, with efficient support from Suley Musah who made a goalline save.

Into the second half, East Bengal was a different team, and had the crowd — that had dangled a huge flag from the terrace in its support — chanting in frenzy with a series of delightful moves that culminated into fine goals.

It was Mike Okoro, otherwise inactive, who opened the account for East Bengal in the sixth minute of the second half, with a simple header off a cross from K. Kulothungan who had been put through by Baichung Bhutia. Okoro put both his arms up and walked into the goal in celebration after his header had ensconced into the corner.

Dempo was fortunate to earn a penalty two minutes later as Sunday Seah fell inside the box while being tackled by Mahesh Gawli. It was a harsh decision by the referee, but R.C. Prakash could not capitalise on the favourable situation and drove the penalty wide to the right of the goalkeeper who had run to his left in anticipation.

Thereafter, East Bengal tightened its defence to deny a good look at its goal for the Dempo forwards, who were content shooting wide.

East Bengal could breathe a lot easier on scoring its second goal in the 35th minute, as a draw, a possibility at that time, would have put Dempo through, on better goal difference.

Subhas Chakraborty and substitute Malsaw M Tluanga relayed from flank to flank before Bhutia provided a peach of a pass despite being marked tightly by the tall Majek Bolaji. With his back to the goal and Bolaji physically breathing down his neck, Bhutia just pushed the ball to Malsaw M Tluanga, who walked two steps and drove into the net in triggering another round of celebration in the stands.

Tluanga came up with a nice cross about seven minutes later, and Kulothungan volleyed home this time to complete Dempo's ignominy.

In the semifinals, East Bengal will take on Air India, which sneaked past another Goan Club, Vasco, after a 1-1 draw. Both the teams had beaten the qualifier Jammu and Kashmir Bank, and had the same goal difference, but Air India qualified on the basis of having scored more goals, one more than Vasco.

It was Vasco that shot into the lead in the 12th minute through Dennis Cabral who lobbed home in beating an advanced goalkeeper Raju Ekka.

Air India could not conjure up an equaliser in the first half, though it came close to finding one in the 25th minute when Shanta Singh's flag-kick hit the bar and flew away.

However, 10 minutes on resumption, Suprit Jathanna headed into the target, following a fine throw-in by Naushad Moosa, who literally threw the ball into the goal from the sidelines.

Friday's match (semifinal): Salgaocar v Mahindra United, 2.30 p.m.