IMPHAL, Oct 27 : Local favourites, NEROCA FC had a poor start as they went down by 0-2 goals to East Bengal in their opening tie at the 2018-19 I-League at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium today.
Enrique Esqueda (10′, 47′) scored in either half to seal maximum points away from home.
Alejandro Menendez fielded his side in a 4-4-2 formation with Rakshit Dagar under the sticks. Youngster Manoj Mohammed started on the left side of defence with Lalram Chullova on the right.
Borja Gomez Perez made his debut in Red and Gold colours at the heart of defence partnering Costa Rican World-Cupper Johnny Acosta.
Laldanmawia Ralte started on the right flank with Yami Longvah on the other wing. Forner Minerva Punjab player Kamalpreet Singh and Lalrindika Ralte positioned themselves at the centre of the park with Jobby Justin and Esqueda leading the lines.
On the other hand, NEROCA FC head coach Manuel Retamero chose to stick to a 3-4-3 formation with Italian goalkeeper Mauro Boerchio getting the nod ahead of club skipper Lalit Thapa.
Eduardo Ferreira, Glen Williams and Rojen Meetei made up the three-man backline. Midfielders Katsumi Yusa and Tondomba Singh were flanked by wing backs Ashok Singh and Denechandram Meitei.
Malemnganba Meitei, Felix Chidi and Subash Singh was the three-pronged attack deployed by last season’s runners-up.
It was an entertaining first-half as both sides had their daggers out right from the first whistle. Tempers flared as Yusa and Eduardo were facing their old team-mates and both were eager to prove a point.
But it was East Bengal who managed to draw first blood. A long throw-in from Manoj and Glen Williams’ backward glancing header fell to the feet of Esqueda who made no mistake to score from close range.
NEROCA upped their ante in search of the equaliser and it took a goal-line block from Manoj Mohammed to maintain their slender lead. A curling cross from the left flank was dealt feebly by Dagar and his punch fell for Malemnganba who had the entire goal to shoot at but could only find Manoj to target his effort.
Retamero’s men kept up the pressure but Acosta and Fernandez were brilliant at the back to fend away any danger created by the likes of Subash and Yusa. Just before the half-time whistle Katsumi Yusa went down on the pitch and had to be carried away on a stretcher and could take no longer part in the game.
East Bengal were awarded a penalty just after the resumption of play as Denechandram clipped Danmawia right inside the penalty box. Esqueda stepped up to take the spot-kick and although Boerchio guessed the right way he could not get his hands to it as it was hit with power and precision.
NEROCA gathered their spirit once again as they had a mountain to climb after they went down by two goals. The Orange Brigade kept surging forward but a productive final pass continued to elude them.
Borja and Acosta marked Chidi brilliantly denying him any space on the ball which complicated matters for Retamero. Subhash Singh had a quiet game as Chullova continued to keep an eye on him until his substitution.
NEROCA could have pulled one back in the 73rd minute but Esqueda made an outstanding goal-line clearance to keep out Eduardo’s header from nestling inside the net.
Two goal-line clearances one from Manoj in the first half and the other from Esqueda saved the day for Menendez. NEROCA continued to dominate possession in the last quarter as well but failed to make it count.
NEROCA FC will next take on Gokulam Kerala on October 31 at home whereas East Bengal will continue their journey on the road as they face Shillong Lajong in their next game on November 1.