Kolkata: A brilliant strike from skipper Sanju Pradhan helped defending champions East Bengal avoid the ignominy of defeat as they managed to hold Mohammedan Sporting to a 1-1 draw in their group C opener in the 33rd Federation Cup at the floodlit Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday.
In a near-empty stadium, East Bengal made an aggressive start but conceded a goal against the run of play by a penalty converted in the 18th minute by their African recruit Okoroigwe.
The morale of the seven-time champions was a bit down after conceding the goal.
East Bengal, who are in line for a hattrick looked lacklustre, failing to create any chances, even as Mohammadan Sporting dominated the proceedings in the first 45 minutes.
But East Bengal defence held back to avoid any further damage in the first chapter. For a moment, another shocker seemed to be on the cards after Dempo`s defeat against Pune FC as they were trailing 0-1 at half-time.
But Sanju scored the equaliser with a brilliant strike from top of the box to keep red and golds in the hunt.
Fresh from their back-to-back wins in the qualifers that earned them a berth in the main round, Mohammedan Sporting`s cause got a real boost when a misjudgement by Sandip Nandy earned them a penalty in the 16th minute.
Mohammedan Sporting`s Korean recruit Han Wook was brought down inside the box after Nandy misjudged the ball which was going out.
Nandy in his bid to try and block the ball obstructed Han Wook only to bring him down as referee awarded a penalty.
Okoroigwe converted the spot-kick without any issue. East Bengal`s top striker last season Tolgay Ozbey was completely off-colour as defending champions attack lost its steam midway through the first-half.
East Bengal received the only chance of the first-half in the injury time when Sanju`s well shot from top of the box went over the cross bar as they trailed 0-1 in the first-half.
But a Sanju did an excellent job after the changeover as his powerful shot from top of the box left Mohammedan Sporting goalie Naseem Akhtar clueless.
East Bengal will now take on Pune FC while Dempo will face Mohammedan Sporting challenge in group C two matches on September 19.
Prayag United SC will lock horns against their Chirag Kerala while Sporting Clube de Goa will take on Air India in two group D fixtures on Sunday