Guwahati: NorthEast United added a fresh chapter in their remarkable season in the Indian Super League by recording their maiden win over table toppers Bengaluru FC in the first leg of the semi-final tie.
The Highlanders will take a 2-1 lead to Bengaluru for Monday night's second leg. Their spirited performance in Guwahati makes Eelco Schattorie's team an extremely uncomfortable opponents for the Blues who are looking to become the first ISL team to reach consecutive finals.
Bengaluru were clear favourites for the tie given their quality and consistency, with NorthEast United's growing injury list contributing to the gulf between the teams. However, the Highlanders had no plans to roll over and started the game on a strong note.
Cheered on by a vocal crowd of around 21,000, NorthEast United's intensity caused problems for Bengaluru who struggled to settle into any kind of an attacking rhythm. The visitors tried to press the home side to gain control, but the hosts' ploy of crowding their own half during the build-up proved to be quite successful.
While building up from the back, both full-backs tucked in to create an overload in midfield while the wide midfield players dropped into the space vacated by the full-backs to provide another option out wide.
Thus, NorthEast United were comfortably able to bypass the Bengaluru press. In central midfield, Jose Leudo and Rowlin Borges' tenacity proved to be vital factor in linking up the defence with attack. They were quicker, stronger and hungrier in every challenge they made to dominate the midfield area.
Without the ball, the full-backs regained their original position as the Highlanders transitioned into a very solid 4-5-1 formation from their fluid 4-1-4-1 when they had the ball at their feet.
The visitors who lined up in a typical 4-2-3-1 were too passive and static to cause a vibrant NorthEast any problems. The home side, who dominated the central midfield area, were able to bring in the wide players into play a lot more often compared to Bengaluru. In the first 20 minutes, NorthEast United had launched four crosses into the Bengaluru box who had none of their own.
The first goal did come from an assault from wide left when Redeem Tlang was allowed run into the box and send a left-footed curler past a helpless Gurpreet Singh Sandhu. The goal cemented the beliefs of the NorthEast United player who went on to dominate the first half.
Bengaluru were too disjointed with big distance between their forward, midfield and defensive lines. Thanks to their work rate and fluid movement, NorthEast United were able to successfully exploit those gaps and create openings. Bengaluru needed to go few notches up in terms of intensity, but the hosts never allowed Carles Cuadrat's men sustained spell of possession. Their incessant closing down of passing lanes forced Bengaluru into errors and their counter-attacks never materialised in the first half.
The only blemish on the Highlanders' first half was the injury to center forward Bartholomew Ogbeche who had to be replaced just before the interval due to a hamstring injury. His replacement Juan Mascia had attributes of his own, but holding the ball up like Ogbeche wasn't one of it..
Things were to get worse for NorthEast United when midfielder Rowlin Borges had to come off after aggravating his own hamstring injury that he had sustained during a set-piece training session on Wednesday.
The home side were able to keep the intensity going for another fifteen minutes until Cuadrat threw Xisco Hernandez to help Bengaluru have a greater influence with the ball in the tight central spaces.
Eventually the absence of a midfield passer and a target man begin to feel as Bengaluru seized the initiative. Recognising his team's struggles at maintaining the work rate and intensity post the hour mark, Schattorie threw in an extra defender to switch to a 5-4-1 system to see the remainder of the game out.
Bengaluru though were able to find a breakthrough, albeit controversially, when Xisco tapped home a neatly measured cross from Sunil Chhetri. NorthEast complained about a foul in the build-up on substitute striker Mascia, but their protests perhaps led to their downfall as the momentary lapse in concentration allowed Xisco a free run into the six yard area to finish Chhetri's cross.
The game was there for the taking for the visitors, but the home side did well to hang on. In the end, a moment of madness from Harmanjyot Khabra gifted NorthEast United a chance to restore the balance of the tie by winning the first leg of the semi-final.
Mascia under immense pressure converted the spot kick to give the Highlanders a much-deserved lead in the semi-final tie.
NorthEast United, who boast a fine record away from home, are certain to make life difficult for Bengaluru at the Kanteerava, who will now have to pin hopes of reaching the final on their usual heroics at their fortress.
With Ogbeche and Borges likely to miss the second leg, Schattorie will have to come up with a different tactical plan to counter the threat of Bengaluru in the second leg, The Dutchman has more often than not delivered the goods when similar challenge has been thrown at him in the past. The slender lead which the Highlanders take to Bengaluru means the battling NorthEast United will have a say at the Kanteerava.
Bengaluru need to match the energy level and intensity of their hosts on Thursday, to enable their superior technical quality to make a difference on Monday. NorthEast United even without their most priced resources are no pushovers. Thursday's result shows Bengaluru will need a special night at fortress Kanteerava to ensure passage to yet another final. An intriguing second leg awaits!