East Bengal's chances of making it to the playoff stage of the Indian Super League (ISL) suffered a massive blow on Friday after Aridane Santana grabbed a late equaliser for Hyderabad FC to deny Robbie Fowler's men all three points.
It was virtually a do-or-die match for the Red and Golds.
With only the top four teams after the league stage set to progress to the ISL 2020-21 playoffs, East Bengal are currently ninth with 17 points from as many games - six-points behind fourth-place FC Goa, who also have a game in hand.
East Bengal have just three more matches left in the league phase. Even if they win all of them, the Red and Gold brigade will still need to rely on immense luck when it comes to other results to have any chances of qualifying.
Assistant coach Tony Grant, deputising for the suspended Robbie Fowler, opted to start with the same starting XI which carved out a win in their last match against Jamshedpur FC.
The formula seemed to be working well, too, as East Bengal frustrated Hyderabad FC in the first half before taking over the control of the game in the second after Bright Enobakhare gave them the lead around the hour-mark.
East Bengal could have extended their lead a few moments later as Bright was brought down in the box by Hyderabad FC goalkeeper Laxmikant Kattimani. While replays showed there was visible contact, the referee decided against giving the penalty.
"A player who worked hard, worked tirelessly, all game to get an opportunity. He gets an opportunity, he gets kicked. It's a penalty," Grant said after the match.
It was one of the several controversial refereeing decisions that have gone against East Bengal this campaign.
Like many of their previous matches, the missed opportunity would come back to haunt East Bengal after Santana scored a last-gasp equaliser for the Nizams to deny the Kolkata side a win.
“To concede right at the end is tough. We dominated in the second half. We were always in control. It's harsh to take. We are not a million miles away from competing with the top four," Grant summed up.
The Englishman also conceded that the top four looked beyond reach. “I think we had to win tonight. We have three games left, So I don't know. Obviously, teams have to lose around us.”
The Englishman, however, reiterated that the team will give its all in the remaining three fixtures to end the season on a high and set the tone for next season.
“The team needs to finish as a team and keep staying together and working hard. The club has been for over 100 years. We have to build that can grow on and create memories for all the fans in India," Grant said.
East Bengal's next fixture will be the famed Kolkata Derby against arch-rivals ATK Mohun Bagan on February 19.
East Bengal's 1-1 draw against Hyderabad FC also had a big implication at the top of the table, with both leaders Mumbai City FC and second-placed ATK Mohun Bagan now guaranteed a spot in the top four, irrespective of the results in the remaining matches.
_Lead photo: ISL Media