Akum Ao struck twice as Assam Rifles defeated J-K Bank 2-1 to qualify for the main draw of Osian's Durand Cup football tournament at Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi on Friday.
The 26-year-old struck in the 24th and 50th minute while the bankmen got one back in the 54th.
Assam Rifles' Omana Kuttan was sent off around the hour mark for a second bookable offence but the paramilitary boys held on to seal a clash in the pre-quarterfinals with former national league champions JCT on October 31.
The team based in Shillong showed better ball control, skill and speed to put it across their rivals. In contrast, J-K Bank relied mostly on aerial balls and the physical strength of their players.
Assam Rifles went close in the sixth minute when a cross from the left by Ajit Singh was headed goalwards by Akum Ao, but custodian Vikramjeet Singh saved the day for his team with a spectacular effort.
At the other end, Rizwan wasted a gilt-edged opportunity when he broke the off-side trap and got behind the defence but hit wide off the target when he had only goalkeeper L Lakeshwar Singh to beat.
Akum, who was adjudged one of the most promising players in the tournament two years ago, showed his class while breaking the deadlock halfway through the first period.
A centre from the right flank by Thoithoiba Singh seemed to be out of Akum's reach but he somehow managed to scoop the ball over the advancing Vikramjeet to find the top corner.
The rest of the half was largely played in midfield with few goalmouth opportunities with J-K Bank players frequently getting caught off-side in their forward forays. Akum doubled the lead in the beginning of the second half.
A centre from Meikegai Kamai came through to the striker at the top of the penalty area and he found the mark with a rasping volley.
Assam Rifles could have made the game safe had Abel Sema not hit the post from an acute angle a couple of minutes later.
Kamaljeet Kumar failed to clear a chip from the left flank and the ball found its way to Sema whose attempt came off the upright.
J-K Bank came back into the match when they capitalised on some shoddy defending to reduce the margin.
A cross from the right was not cleared and resulted in a goalmouth melee in a crowded penalty area. The ball reached Emmanuiel Nnamani at the top of the box whose bullet shot left Lakeshwar with no chance.
The bankmen were thrown a lifeline when referee Sunil Dutt gave Omana Kuttan his marching orders after his second yellow card.
However, the team from the northern state could not make use of the numerical advantage as Assam Rifles defended stoutly and the J-K Bank forwards lacked the creativity to unlock a packed defence.
Assam Rifles coach Santanu Basu replaced striker Sema with B Das and J Kharlukhi with Prabin Rai to strengthen his backline with only Akum left to chase balls upfield.
Air Force XI and Amity United face off tomorrow to decide who takes on national league champions Dempo Sports Club in the last 16 on November 1.