For ATK Mohun Bagan, it might have been their first semi-final appearance as a franchise, but for their players, most of whom were part of ATK’s ISL winning squad last season, it was familiar territory.
The Mariners inherited 21 players from ATK and despite the merger, their team was one of the most settled in the league this season.
Up against NorthEast United, a franchise that was making just their second appearance in the semi-finals and a first one for the majority of their players, ATK Mohun Bagan’s experience was considered to be at an advantage going into the two-legged tie.
For ninety-four minutes of that first leg, that advantage seemed to reflect in the scoreline. But in stepped Idrissa Sylla who sent his header in off the post to provide a tangible reward for all of NorthEast United’s spirit and hard work.
For ATK Mohun Bagan, the game almost went according to plan. They started well, remained solid at the back, scored a goal through one of their star forward players and shut out a NorthEast United attack devoid of Deshorn Brown, their main striker.
In fact, scoring in the 34th minute, the Mariners netted much earlier than what they usually do. David Williams’ opener was only their sixth goal in the first half this season. Habas’ men are known to take the game deep and strike late.
But in the opening exchanges, ATK Mohun Bagan looked very much in control compared to the Highlanders who seemed to be slightly overwhelmed by the occasion.
Usually spirited and intense, NorthEast United made a subdued start. Perhaps, the pressure to not make a mistake that leads to a goal for their opponents was playing on their minds. The Highlanders played much more freely and looked a lot more like themselves after ATK Mohun Bagan scored.
“The main focus today was not to concede. Our aim was to not lose focus in the game and give away initiative to the opponent,” NorthEast United full-back Ashutosh Mehta said after the game after being asked about the team’s game plan.
The need NorthEast United felt to not fall behind in the game was justified. Before this game, Habas’ men had won each of the 13 matches that they had taken the lead in. They had the most number of clean sheets this season and had also conceded the least number of goals in the competition.
So the Highlanders were perhaps far too cautious in their approach leading to the Mariners being comfortable in the first half. And when Williams struck the opener, there was more reason for NorthEast United to be disheartened as every time the Australian had scored for ATK Mohun Bagan this season, they had gone on to win those games by a scoreline of 1-0.
Their response to going a goal down was a sign that the players did not let their shoulders drop and they were up for a fight despite history being against them. After a spell of pressure at the end of the first half, Ashutosh Mehta nearly equalised as his header from a set-piece struck the crossbar.
NorthEast United were missing a target man in attack as neither of their strikers, Luis Machado and Suhair VP, were out and out center-forwards. Both seemed keen on running the channels or dropping wide instead of holding the ball with their backs to the goal. Their partnership was proving to be ineffective as the Mariners with their back five were easily able to close the gaps in their defence.
The Highlanders had a Plan B in the shape of Sylla on the bench, but coach Khalid Jamil didn’t rush into the change.
“Our first thought was to bring on Sylla early, probably at half time but I knew he wasn’t 100%, so I decided to hold him back and only give him thirty minutes. He is a mature player and he showed that with his performance today,” Jamil said after the game.
It also showed how the Indian coach was cool under pressure and didn’t panic despite the Mariners’ defence showing no signs of relenting during the match.
NorthEast United’s overall play was good throughout the game and it perhaps gave coach Jamil the confidence that his team could not just stay in the game but also get back in it.
The Highlanders kept a compact shape all throughout the game. Their squad depth on the pitch (distance between forward and defensive lines) was just over 30m. Their players were close to each other and it didn’t allow ATK Mohun Bagan to play through them on the counters.
Habas’ men were forced to go long where the NorthEast United centre-backs dealt with the threat well apart from the one occasion that led to the goal. The Mariners played 91 long balls to NorthEast United’s 64 but could only produce two shots on target.
However, ATK Mohun Bagan were largely comfortable at the back until Jamil decided to introduce Britto PM in place of Suhair.
Britto along with Sylla gave the Highlanders a new dimension as they could now hit the two strikers with long balls, something that the earlier pair of Machado and Suhair were not comfortable with.
With the Mariners missing both their first-choice defenders in Tiri and Sandesh Jhingan, the usually flawless ATK Mohun Bagan defence cracked in stoppage time.
The equaliser was more down to NorthEast United’s relentless desire and fighting spirit than great quality. While the cross and the finish for the goal were excellent, the Mariners’ defence was disrupted by the Highlanders’ reluctance to surrender.
The two teams had precious few between them at full-time and a draw leaves the tie completely open. But NorthEast United would feel they won the psychological battle in the first leg. They managed to break all of ATK Mohun Bagan’s streaks while their own unbeaten run which was a result of their great attitude stayed intact.
In a show of their respective strengths, NorthEast United’s spirit triumphed over ATK Mohun Bagan’s ruthlessness. They may not have won the match, but they’ve earned the right to go into the second leg with nothing to fear.
Stats Courtesy: Opta Jeev (Stats Perform)
Watch the highlights of the match below: