Bengaluru: Nothing gets tougher than semi-final second legs, especially if the tie is perfectly balanced. NorthEast United enter the lion's den at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium with a 2-1 lead over hosts Bengaluru FC, but that Xisco Hernandez away goal along with injuries to key NorthEast United personnel has the semi-final tie tantalizingly poised ahead of the second leg on Monday.
Bengaluru FC are unbeaten at the Kanteerava this season, winning six out of the nine matches played at the venue, but NorthEast United will take heart from the three draws Bengaluru had to be content with on home soil. There's one more reason for the Highlanders to be optimistic about. They have the best away record in the Indian Super League (ISL), winning five out of the nine games on the road. They have faced defeats just twice in away games, but one of those defeats did come in Bengaluru.
Eelco Schattorie's men have kept six clean sheets in away games and one more such effort will seal their passage to the final. However, it is easier said than done with injuries plaguing them to a large extent.
Top scorer Bartholomew Ogbeche who limped out of the first leg with a hamstring injury is a major doubt, while midfielder Rowlin Borges who aggravated a similar problem is also unlikely to make it. Without the two players, NorthEast United weren't the same force in the first leg. They surrendered the initiative to the visitors which allowed them to grab that all-important away goal. It was only through a controversial penalty that NorthEast United were able to regain the lead and arrive in Bengaluru with something to defend. Schattorie has proven his tactical flexibility time and again this season, but with a long injury list, the Dutchman faces perhaps his toughest test to get a positive result against Bengaluru in the second leg of the semi-final.
"In a team, one player can make a big difference. If you lose key players early in the season, you have to go out and replace them but that is not always possible. So, now, I have to solve the puzzle and put out the strongest team," the Dutchman said without revealing the players he is expected to be without for this second leg clash.
The visitors managed to stifle Bengaluru in the first leg for large parts of an hour, but the absence of a target man and the lack of physicality in central midfield after Borges' departure meant the visitors could make an impact in the final third especially after the arrival of Xisco from the bench.
NorthEast United did a decent job of holding fort after switching to a 5-4-1 formation, but adopting a similar tactic for the full ninety minutes at the Kanteerava comes with its risks.
"When you are doing well as a team it is because all players are comfortable with each other and know the strengths of everyone. But when you have an injury the entire team has to adapt to the new player because the new player will not have the exact same attributes as the injured player. Making these adjustments on a regular basis doesn't help and neither does having very little time for it. However, we have the best away record in the league and I have full faith in my players to get the necessary result here," Schattorie stated.
NorthEast United are expected to play the same back five that started the first leg. The only changes to the eleven are expected to be in central midfield and centre forward positions. Juan Mascia will start if Ogbeche is not fit and Nikhil Kadam will take Borges' place in midfield if he fails to recover in time for the game.
Bengaluru have been in patchy form of late losing five games since the turn of the year. However, they have been a different animal at home and are known to raise their game during the big occasions.
"We're ready for the game and are training very well. All the players are motivated and fit. We have the feeling that here in Kanteerava, in front of the supporters, we can give them one of these nights that we will remember through the years. Like the one in the AFC Cup or the one against Pune last season when we reached the final. Tomorrow, with the help of all the fans, we can do something nice for the club." Bengaluru coach Carles Cuadrat said before the game.
Bengaluru though haven't been the most prolific team having scored 15 goals at home in nine matches. Forward Miku has often been their talisman in big games alongside captain Sunil Chhetri who netted a hat-trick at this same stage last season.
However, the Venezuelan forward hasn't hit his peak form since returning from injury. Although he scored a brace against FC Goa in a fine 3-0 victory earlier this month, he hasn't been his menacing self for a while.
In a game that's like to be decided by fine margins, Bengaluru would rely on their big game players to make that difference. Despite the injury crisis, NorthEast United remain the best defensive unit in the league and one couldn't pick a worse team to chase a game against.
The Highlanders are bound to make it very difficult for Bengaluru with their physicality and work rate. Thus patience is going to be key for the hosts of they are to become the first team in ISL to reach back-to-back finals.
If the game does venture into thirty extra minutes, Bengaluru who will have the home support and a deeper squad should be able to force the issue.
The onus is on Bengaluru " last year's finalists and league stage winners for two straight years " to take the game to NorthEast United who're looking to reach their maiden final, and overturn the slender deficit. Bengaluru's big-game pedigree should hold them in good stead for this critical clash, but Schattorie's men who have lost just three games all season will hardly be intimidated by the prospect of stealing a march on Bengaluru in their own backyard. It promises to be a cracking contest as ISL awaits its first finalist. Over to the Sree Kanteerava stadium " Bengaluru's undefeated fortress.