Title race wide open as Aizawl hand East Bengal season's first defeat

Laldanmawia Ralte's 58th-minute goal helped Aizawl FC maintain their unbeaten run at home for the 2017 I-League, with a 1-0 win over East Bengal. This was also East Bengal's first ever defeat against Aizawl in the fourth I-League meeting between the teams, and it also snapped East Bengal's unbeaten run of nine games this season.

This result has now brought Aizawl within a point of both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who continue to occupy the first and second spot in the points table. Mohun Bagan, however, have a game in hand.

Here are five takeaways from an evening of history in the I-League.

A much-changed East Bengal

While Aizawl went into the game with pretty much their strongest XI, East Bengal rang in a few changes to their usual starting line-up. Arnab Mondal, who began the season with an injury, returned to give a rest to Gurwinder Singh at the heart of defence. Rowllin Borges accompanied Mehtab Hossain in the centre of midfield, while Romeo Fernandes and Abhinas Ruidas started along the wings, suggesting a 4-2-3-1, with Willis Plaza playing just ahead of Wedson Anselme. East Bengal's decision to introduce squad rotation wasn't surprising, considering they have stuck to the same core set of players for their first nine games, played inside the first six weeks of the league. This is the phase of the league where keeping players fresh and match-fit will be vital for teams looking to excel at either end of the table, and East Bengal coach Trevor Morgan appears cognisant of that fact.

The first half gambit that turned the tide

The visitors were quick off the blocks, and should have led in the 3rd minute when Plaza flicked the ball into the path of an onrushing Anselme, whose powerful volley beat Albino Gomes in goal but rebounded off the crossbar. The first quarter of an hour belonged to East Bengal, who were utilising their right flank to perfection with Romeo running rings around left-back Lalruatthara, one of Aizawl's most consistent performers this season. It was around this time that coach Khalid Jamil made a switch, possibly due to an injury to Lalruatthara. He brought on Lalrinzuala who then swapped flanks with Lalramchullova. This not only fortified the Aizawl defence, but even enabled their midfielders to push East Bengal back. Chances opened up for Aizawl, with snapshots for Alfred Jaryan, Laldanmawia and Kamo Bayi narrowly missing their mark as the home side finished the first half strongest.

Morgan rings in the changes

With Romeo and Ruidas both proving to be ineffective in the first 45 minutes for East Bengal, Morgan introduced Robin Singh and Lalrindika Ralte to bring greater variety in attack. It would prove to be a gamble that left him hamstrung for choices, when Plaza had to be replaced in the 66th minute with a suspected groin strain. But at the start of the second half, it made sense for East Bengal to be more positive in order to reverse the trend of Aizawl domination. The momentum in attack would continue to stay with the hosts, who were using the wings through Laldanmawia and Jayesh Rane much better.

The turning point

There was a goal close to the hour mark, but the key moment in the game came a little after 50 minutes, when Jaryan fouled big defender Ivan Bukenya close to Aizawl's defensive third. There were some retaliatory nudges between the two of them, and then Lalramchullova would get involved too, leading to him and Bukenya receiving yellow cards. This passage of play appeared to play on Lalrindika's mind as well, as the East Bengal winger then gave away a booking and a free kick off a cynical and needless challenge in the middle of the field. It was soon after that a long ball was floated into the East Bengal box, and Aizawl scored through Laldanmawia thanks to a combination of quick reflexes from him and some lazy defending from the visitors. Aizawl then sat back and played within their own half, thus making it impossible for East Bengal to create space in attack.

Some decisive outcomes next weekend

This was the first of three successive home games that Aizawl FC will be playing, and comfortably the most difficult of the three. They host Chennai City FC next and then face Mumbai FC in the first week of March. East Bengal travel away to Bengaluru FC, a difficult match despite the evident lack of form in recent matches from the champions. Mohun Bagan will be sitting out this round, with their clash away to Shillong Lajong rescheduled for April.

Whichever of Aizawl, East Bengal or even Bengaluru can get themselves a favourable result will have a psychological edge in the title race, which has now been blown open to one involving three teams, if not more.