In the end, it was an uphill task for a paper-thin NorthEast United squad. The glue that was papering over the cracks disappeared, crucial parts of the team’s spine went missing due to injuries and it proved a task too far for Eelco Schattorie’s charges.
The Highlanders coach spoke of fielding 16 players before the match and as Bengaluru found their stride in the second half at the Kanteerava Stadium, NorthEast’s injured captain Bartholomew Ogbeche watched from the bench as his side crumbled under pressure to let in three goals.
Federico Gallego, highest assists for NorthEast, was also taken off due to a serious shin injury in the second half and it proved pivotal as the away side were over-run.
Miku goes from villain to show-stopper
A 2-1 lead looked it would suffice for 70 minutes as Bengaluru fashioned ample chances but failed to put them away. The chief culprit for the home side till that point, Miku, had endured a frustrating night in front of goal.
The Venezuelan number 7 could have indeed had a hat-trick on the evening, but was looking at a 0-0 scoreline with full-time approaching. Indeed, it was the perfect miss as opposed to the perfect hat-trick; a chance missed with head, left and right foot.
The first came from an early cross put in by Nishu Kumar, Miku ghosting in before heading it wide of Pawan Kumar’s post. Udanta Singh’s cut-back was blazed over as Miku fashioned the third chance himself, dancing past four defenders before a tame effort right into the keeper’s hands. All of this in the space of 10 first-half minutes.
Udanta would not be denied an assist as more good work by the Manipuri winger saw his low cross being slid off the far post by Miku. After 71 minutes, Bengaluru had their goal and it was NorthEast heading out on the away goals rule.
Three minutes from time, Miku headed away a corner and it fell to Udanta, who sped away from Redeem Tlang and covered 60 yards before his cross, tipped onto the post by Pawan Kumar, fell to Dimas Delgado. The Spanish midfielder placed his finish as did Sunil Chhetri five minutes later off a Miku through ball for the third.
Schattorie remarked after the game that he thought that the third goal had hints of off-side but his depleted side were well and truly beaten on the night. Losing Robert Lalthlamuana in warm-up was not ideal. Neither was the loss of Gallego at a crucial juncture in the match. Ogbeche and Rowllin Borges were earlier casualties in the first leg.
Eelco Schattorie delivers
The Dutchman is nevertheless, a coach who came to within 20 minutes of making the final of the Indian Super League with the smallest budget in the league and must look back at a season where they punched above their weights with the tactics and guile of a quirky manager and an Indian contingent who have improved by leaps and bounds this season.
They reached their first ISL play-offs in the fifth season with Ogbeche, who scored 12 goals. Borges, who also scored four on their way to the semis, chipped in as did Puitea and Tlang, unsung heroes of their campaign. Schattorie is likely to be a man in demand, as are the players.
Schattorie had proven his tactical superiority over Carles Cuadrat on the three occasions they met this season, but the Spaniard gambled on the night. Xisco, a substitute who scored a precious away goal in Guwahati, was restored as Albert Serran was dropped to make a back-line of four.
Cuadrat also persisted with Alex Barrera. The new recruit played deepest, as his fellow countrymen Xisco and Delgado played ahead of him, as they supported the front three.
They were going to prove a tough proposition at home, where they haven’t lost all season. With Goa likely to play the final after a 5-1 thrashing of Mumbai City away, the possibility of the two best teams in the league stages playing the final looks almost certain.
The Gaurs have lost twice to Bengaluru but the first finalists of this season know that they have it all to do once again in Andheri. For now, they will rejoice. That’s two finals in successive years since switching over to the Indian Super League but the eyes are firmly on the top prize and that AFC Cup slot.
Sergio Lobera’s Goa, also casting glances at the decider on Sunday, will know the ground all too well, having scored five three days ago. The opposition will be a different proposition – gritty Bengaluru, having overcome a tough tie, to set up the final clash the season has deserved.