ATK Mohun Bagan and Antonio Habas were subjected to a few uncomfortable questions after his team let a lead slip in the dying minutes and NorthEast United eked out a 1-1 draw in first leg of the Indian Super League 2020-21 semi-final.
Habas played down most concerns raised by the media but when it came to questions over his team’s desire, the Spaniard was quick to clarify.
“We are very motivated. No team in the ISL is as motivated as us so there is no chance of NorthEast United being more motivated than us,” Habas said.
When ATK Mohun Bagan stepped onto the field for the second leg, they showed exactly what their coach meant.
The Mariners played with renewed vigour, looked sharp in their passing and movement. They showed NorthEast United that they meant business.
The Highlanders, who were guilty of a slow start in the first leg, were rattled by ATK Mohun Bagan’s quick start to the game and almost conceded in the third minute when Javier Hernandez struck the upright.
The Mariners pressed allowing no time for NorthEast United to get out and after the first ten minutes had over 60% of possession in the game, something that Habas’ side aren’t usually known for. The Highlanders struggled to put passes together as their passing accuracy at that point was less than 40%.
ATK Mohun Bagan’s dominance wasn’t restricted to just possession but they created plenty of openings in the first half. They attempted 14 shots in that half which was six more than their best tally in that period all season.
The genius of Roy Krishna
NorthEast United defence seemed all at sea while dealing with the movement of ATK Mohun Bagan’s front three. Led by the wily Roy Krishna who had pretty much been the one-man show in attack for the Mariners so far this season, ATK Mohun Bagan were constantly able to create openings in the Highlanders’ backline.
Instead of attacking the space behind the defence that he usually does, Krishna constantly dropped deep into midfield to open the space behind him. That’s where David Williams, who usually plays behind Krishna, started making runs into space that the Fijian had vacated.
It caused confusion in the NorthEast United rearguard as the players marking those two players often got dragged out of position.
It wasn’t until the second half that NorthEast United came to grips with ATK Mohun Bagan’s movement, but till then Krishna and Williams had combined to put the Mariners in front. Krishna, having dropped deep picked up the ball between the lines, released Williams in the channel. The Australian holding off Ashutosh Mehta’s challenge finished emphatically.
While NorthEast United needed to think about wiping off the deficit, Khalid Jamil would have been more concerned about his team conceding chances to their opponents.
After what looked like the most difficult team talk of his time with the Highlanders, Jamil managed to turn things around almost instantly in the second half. NorthEast United didn’t just stop the flow of chances, they also started asking questions of the ATK Mohun Bagan defence.
But the Mariners’ defence isn’t one that cracks with ease. So as time passed, NorthEast United began throwing more men forward. This is where Krishna’s genius stepped in again. Once again dropping deep almost in his own half, he released Manvir Singh with a pinpoint pass. The Indian forward used his pace to beat the NorthEast United defender and send a curling effort past Subhasish Roy. It was a brilliant finish but once again the goals were made possible due to Krishna’s smartness.
Very much against the run of play, the Fijian produced that extra bit of quality that would prove to be decisive in the final result.
By the end of the game, Krishna had created 12 goalscoring chances, a record for most chances created by a player in an ISL game since Opta started recording stats in 2015.
ATK Mohun Bagan ended the game with 24 shots, the most by any team in the ISL this season.
The second semi-final was an attacking masterclass by Krishna and Co until NorthEast United decided to leave their own imprint on the game.
Staring at a 0-2 deficit with little over 20 minutes to play, the Highlanders looked dead and buried but the fighting spirit that had characterised the Khalid Jamil era resurfaced again. With Deshorn Brown on, NorthEast United had two big targets to hit. They started peppering the Mariners box with long balls.
Suhair VP, with some help from Mariners goalkeeper Arindam who allowed a cross to rebound off the crossbar, headed home to give Jamil’s men hope. It was enough for them to believe and believe big.
Just minutes later they found themselves with a golden opportunity to level matters when Subashish Bose fouled Idrissa Sylla while contesting for an aerial ball. For the second game running, the indomitable spirit of Jamil’s men was going to overpower ATK Mohun Bagan’s class. But with the stakes bigger than ever, nerves gave way. Luis Machado blasted his spot-kick over to blow the chance to pull Highlanders on terms.
With four minutes left to play, Ashutosh Mehta had another big chance from a cross but he too fired over.
Every time you felt NorthEast United had blown their big chance, they would go and create another one. Even ATK Mohun Bagan, the team that has seen off games for fun all season, were hanging on to hope that the Highlanders would continue to misfire. How the game had changed in a flash.
After five minutes of stoppage that turned into seven, the referee blew his whistle to pull ATK Mohun Bagan out of their misery and into ecstasy. They had prevailed after one of the strongest onslaughts by any team this season.
It was heartbreak for NorthEast United who fell at the semi-final hurdle for the second time in three seasons, but their run to the last four was no short of a dream. Khalid Jamil had turned underachievers into fighters that no football fan wanted to see on the losing side.
On Wednesday, they went down to superior and more seasoned campaigners while giving them a real run for the money. This after going ten games unbeaten to reach the semi-finals. Khalid Jamil’s men may have nothing to show for their efforts this season but the team certainly gained admirers simply for their work in the semi-finals.
But the night belonged to ATK Mohun Bagan who became the fourth team to reach the ISL final in their debut season. Once again, Roy Krishna, their talisman was central to it all. He’s now been directly involved in 21 of the 31 goals they’ve scored this season. Where would they be without him?
Stats Courtesy: OptaJeev (StatsPerform)