East Bengal paid for missed chances and ill luck to finish goalless against Dempo Sports Club, Goa in the clash between the two title aspirants in the eighth National Football League match in Kolkata on Sunday.
The city giants, who missed Brazilian striker Cristiano Junior, sitting out with a red card, dominated the proceedings for most part of the game and created chances galore but failed to convert any, much to the dismay of the sizeable crowd at the Salt Lake Stadium.
The defending champions, however, maintained their standings at the top with 31 points from 15 matches and their three-point margin with the second placed Goans, who now have 28 points.
Dempo, who had won the first leg tie 3-2, took the early initiatives and wrested midfield control to keep the hosts under pressure but failed to create positive chances during the first 20 minutes.
East Bengal, on the other hand, launched their maiden foray only in the 24th minute before sweeping across the rival defence with waves of attacks during next 10 minutes, when they bagged four corners and wasted three scoring chances.
Sur Kumar Singh set the tone for his side with fast overlaps down the right to feed Baichung Bhutia, Alvito D'Cunha and Mike Okoro with accurate crosses, but none were able to translate the chances into goals.
With the match heading for a draw, East Bengal made a last ditch effort towards the end but proved distinctly unlucky when Okoro's deflection off a substitute Bijen Singh corner hit the postminutes before the long whistle.
Earlier, Bhutia, fed by a Sur Kumar centre from the right, headed straight to rival goalkeeper Abhijit Mondal from handshaking distance in the 28thminute.
In the next few minutes, D'Cunha's shot from close and narrowly missed the target while Okoro's goal-boundattempt was nullified by Mondal in brilliant fashion.
But, the easiest of the chances came and went abegging in the 43rdminute. Mahesh Gawli, picked up from defence for the midfield, carried out a combination with Douglas da Silva and Debjit Ghosh before getting the ball unmarked inside the box.
Withthe rival custodian at his mercy, Gawli had enough time and space to convert the chance but failed to trap the ball well before making an weak attempt that did not bear fruit.
Dempo,despite their early aggression, could not open the East Bengal goalmouth and could only make some hopeful attempts that lacked precision or substance.
Liberian striker Sunday Seah put up an unimpressive display and came to the reckoning in the 41st minute when his header inched out over the cross-piece.
East Bengal's substitute goalkeeper Sandip Nandy, who came in place of injured Sangram Mukherjee, caused some tension for his side in the 87thminute as he misgripped an Alex Ambrose shot, but the ball crossed the goalline for a corner.
EastBengal coach Subhas Bhowmick expressed his resentment over the missed opportunities but said he was happy with the overall performance of his wards.