For the last ten minutes in Guwahati, it looked like it would not be third time lucky for Eelco Schattorie and NorthEast United.
Xisco Hernandez, coming on as a substitute for Bengaluru FC, had put a dent in NorthEast’s final hopes, stabbing home from a squared pass from Sunil Chhetri, grabbing an all-important away goal and an equaliser.
Suddenly, the momentum had swung back to Bengaluru after a largely frustrating match in front of goal. NorthEast had their main man, Bartholomew Ogbeche taken off injured, and had Juan Mascia on instead. Surely their chance of making the finals with their top scorer ruled out was gone?
Bengaluru and Carles Cuadrat had fielded the debutante Alex Barrera in midfield. The Spaniard had been brought in to replace the injured Erik Paartalu and it was a big game to field Barrera in.
This meant that Dimas Delgado, pushed forward, would play just behind Miku. Soon, the tactical switch became apparent. Delgado was tasked with marking Jose Leudo, trying to stop NorthEast from employing their passing play. By cutting off the source of NorthEast’s attack, he was inviting NorthEast to play the long ball forward and hope that the big men Juanan Gonzalez and Albert Serran took care of Ogbeche and the rest.
The host full-backs Robert Lalthlamuana and Reagan Singh pushed up to make extra bodies in midfield, as Borges moved to the right wing, double-teaming Nishu Kumar with Redeem Tlang. Puitea dropped deeper to pack the midfield. The ex-DSK man showed his versatility on the night, and his year-long stint at Aizawl FC has toughened him up.
The first goal predictably came from the right, as Tlang received the ball on the flank, dropped his shoulder and curled one with his weaker foot, scoring past a flat-footed Gurpreet Sandhu. The lead was just rewards as Schattorie had out-thought his opposite number. On this occasion, his team had made their chances count. Bengaluru had set out to blunt NorthEast but had made limited headway themselves.
The pivotal moment of the first leg and indeed of the tie, could be Ogbeche’s withdrawal through injury. The NorthEast United attacker has been central to his side’s attack, and did not see out the half. As Borges was taken off injured, the Blues grew in strength in the second half.
They reverted back to their strongest line-up in the second period, as Xisco replaced Albert Serran and Dimas restored to the middle. Udanta, who was double teamed on the wing, suddenly found space and beat Lalthlamuana for pace, but his final ball lacked precision.
The referee Santhosh Kumar was involved in two big calls in the second period. Tlang, already on a yellow, challenged Xisco rashly as the latter was about to take a shot. Later, Nishu’s tug would bring down Mascia in the box. Both were decisions not given.
Miku, despite a superlative showing against Goa, was blunt till that point, but picked up the ball, beat a player and laid it off to Chhetri. The Indian talisman waited for Reagan Singh to commit, before passing the ball to Xisco to equalise. NorthEast had dropped off after Borges and Ogbeche’s withdrawals, and had invited pressure all half.
The home team’s winner was down to a mixture of luck and poor defending. Harmanjot Khabra wrestled Juan Mascia to the ground and even though the striker may have held the BFC defender, the contact was in front of the referee and too much to ignore. Mascia stepped up, and slotted the penalty away calmly.
Schattorie would latter state after the match that the injuries to his two stars “looked bad”.
NorthEast United, in their second half, showed signs that they would struggle without Borges and Ogbeche. They had a lead to show at the end of ninety minute, but will surely play second fiddle at the Kanteerava and come away with a draw.
The result was in NorthEast’s favour, but Bengaluru’s away goal leaves them in with a real shot at making the final. They have been unbeaten at home in the league stage and with their opponent’s squad down to the bare minimum, will be hoping to pick them off at the Kanteerava.
For Schattorie, the task ahead is to prepare for 90 minutes of seige in Bengaluru. Given the circumstances, this result is the best that the Dutchman and his team could have hoped for. Now, they must hold out and hope to blunt one of the best attacks in the league.