The battle drums were sounded, and pyros were flared as the Highlander Warriors arrived at their fortress to defend their honour as old foes faced each
other for the third time this season. The stage was set to settle the scores as the previous two meetings this season saw NorthEast United dropping points
despite being the dominant side for the major part of the game. Poetic justice or sports being a great leveller, as one might put it, was due and it was
delivered well on course as the Highlanders meted out a gut-wrenching defeat to the visitors to head into the second leg of the semi-final with an advantage.
It was not just the Pyros, but tempers and goals flared on the pitch in a hotly contested game as we finally scripted our first win over the Blues
by defeating the visitors 2-1 in the first leg of our maiden Hero Indian Super League Semi-final.
We dominated the first fifteen minutes as we stretched their midfield across the pitch and looked confident controlling the game at the right tempo.
With Puitea and Redeem making dangerous run down the flanks, a goal seemed likely to be coming at any moment as Bengaluru were struggling to cope
with our compact shape. The stage was set for the boys from the soil to shine and Redeem Tlang did that in style and how. In the 20th minute,
Ogbeche found space and played the ball wide to Redeem. A brilliant cut back from the right wing into the box offered a yard of space to Redeem.
The Jaintia Jaguar had the goal in sight like a predator on its prey, brilliantly curled with his left foot past Gurpreet Singh Sandhu as the lanky
keeper stood unmoved watching the ball crash into the net.
With a goal cushion, we played with much more composure to execute our natural game based on strong organization and started to distribute the ball
brilliantly across the pitch with Gallego orchestrating and stringing the build-up play from the centre as usual.
Mato Grgic was leading the backline with solidity and confidence while Rivas provided the aerial dominance and commanded beautifully with vertical
advantage to nullify Bengaluru’s threat to feed Miku or Chhetri with long balls from the deep.
In the 32nd minute, the Uruguayan maestro Gallego released a powerful grounder just from the edge of the box which missed the target narrowly
as Gurpreet was called into action with a full stretch dive.
We played with the right composure and did not release the ball early in order to push forward as we focused on keeping the ball to deny the visitors
any teeth into the game.
Their first real chance for the visitors came in the 38nd minute as Miku chested down the ball in the box from a corner, but the left-footer
blazed over the bar offering us a close relief.
With the Mizo warriors, Puitea and Robert defended in perfect cohesive synchronization by dropping deep as well as executing timely rotations.
The Bengaluru attacking threat from the right in terms of Udanta was completely neutralized, while Regan and Redeem defended in partnership to contain
the threat of Chhetri.
The Highlanders were dealt an injury blow as our capitain, Bartholomew Ogbeche, had to be substituted with an injury as Juan Mascia came in at
the brink of halftime. With the slender lead and having lost our topscrorer, we entered the break knowing we had a tough task in the next half.
At half time, as a preventive caution, Rowllin Borges was replaced by Nikhil Kadam hoping to add another dimension to our attack while not tweaking with the
shape of our team.
Bengaluru FC Coach, Carles Cuadrat, went for an attacking substitution in search of the equalizer taking out defender Albert Serran with Xisco Hernandez which forced
Bengaluru to play high on the pitch but left spaces at the back for us to exploit.
They looked threatening in patches but Jose Leudo, back from his suspension, was tremendously effective in his defensive medio role with crucial interceptions
using his physical dominance to provide a shield to our backline.
In the 66th minute, substitute Xisco found himself in shooting position on the edge of the box, but the effort sailed over the bar as the visitors
enjoyed a brief moment of possession over us.
Gallego triggered a beautiful run and released a delightful chip to compatriot Juan Mascia, who was shadowed by Nishu Kumar who did just enough to
put off Juan Mascia as he failed to connect the shot and ended up poking straight to the keeper.
In the 73rd minute, Redeem was replaced by Keegan Perera offering extra reinforcement to the back line as we reshaped to 5-4-1 looking to protect
the slender lead having lost Ogbeche. The strategy was to play with an organized shape and break Bengaluru on the counter.
It was a lapse in concentration from our backline as Regan Singh failed to deal with Sunil Chhetri’s run close to the goal-line presuming the ball to be out of play. The Indian captain retrieved the ball and managed to put into a low cross in the six-yard box where Xisco was waiting to tap it in past Pawan from handshaking distance as the score was levelled to 1-1 in the 81st minute.
With the raucous crowd rallying behind the team, the Highlanders were keen to dent the Blues confidence and not let the visitors rob us any points or head into the second leg with any deficit. With the stadium egging on the team, the Highlanders pushed forward in numbers, forcing Bengaluru FC to defend deep in the final few minutes.
The pressure finally paid off in the dying minutes as Puitea curled in a beautiful ball from a free-kick and Juan Mascia forward run into the box was illegitimately checked by Harmanjot Khabra who tried to hold on to the Uruguayan forward eventually flooring him down.
With the referee having a clear sight of the action, he straightaway pointed to the spot in the 93rd minute as Juan Mascia stepped up to the spot. The undeniable love affair between Juan Mascia and late goals once again bore fruit as Mascia provided another ‘Boot Jolokia’ moment from a well-taken penalty that had stung with a perfectly placed shot leaving the goalkeeper with no chance to save it.
As the ball bulged the net, a rapturous celebration broke out at our home as the boys scripted a monumental 2-1 victory over Bengaluru FC heading into the second leg of the semi-final with a slight advantage.
The job is only half done as we face the Blues on 11th of March at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium with our title hopes still very much under our control heading into the second leg of the semi-final.
The Coach commented on Redeem’s first goal, “Believe it or not I told him, he would score today!”
On the win, the Coach added “My biggest joy is how we played the first half, take away the result, that they (Bengaluru FC) did not create any chance in the first half. We were defensively perfectly organized and offensively they did have an answer on how we did the build-up, from that I take a lot of joy.
Because that’s what you work for and secondly that you win, football is about winning especially with a team like NorthEast United. Hopefully, we can do it in the next game, but it will be a tough nut to crack. But the spirit is good. So, let's try to reach that on team spirit, not everything has to be based on fantastic football, but we are going to Bengaluru to win.”
NorthEast United FC 2
Redeem Tlang 20’
Juan Mascia 90+4’
Bengaluru FC 1
Xisco Hernandez 81’