Late drama in Guwahati as NorthEast Edge Past Bengaluru in the Final Seconds
It took a penalty deep into stoppage time to separate NorthEast United FC and Bengaluru FC in the first leg of the semi-final 1 of Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2018-19 on Thursday. The Highlanders eventually came out as 2-1 winners and will take a one-goal advantage into the second leg in Bengaluru on Monday.
It was the Highlanders’ first appearance in a Hero ISL semi-final and their first-ever win over Bengaluru.
• Redeem Tlang gave NorthEast the lead with a stunning 20th minute strike.
• Bartholomew Ogbeche and Rowllin Borges were subbed off on either end of the half time whistle after picking up injuries.
• Xisco Hernandez came off the bench to equalise for the Blues on the 82nd minute.
• Juan Mascia converted a penalty in the dying stages of added time to hand NorthEast a 2-1 victory.
Carles Cuadrat brought new signing Alejandro Barrera straight into the starting line-up for the big match, as the Spaniard joined his compatriot Dimas Delgado at the heart of Bengaluru's midfield. Gurwinder Singh's suspension, on the other hand, forced Eelco Schattorie's hands as NorthEast lined up with two foreign centre backs - Mato Grgic and Janeiler Rivas. The personnel change meant winger Panagiotis Triadis had to be relegated to the bench due to the five-foreigner rule.
The home team made a bright start to the match and worried Gurpreet Singh Sandhu early on, forcing him into action multiple times in the opening 10 minutes. With the home crowd backing them in full force, the Highlanders dominated proceedings and created some dangerous chances.
The Bengaluru defence, however, held its shape to thwart the Highlanders' charge. The resistance was finally ended on the 20th minute courtesy a moment of brilliance by Redeem Tlang. The 24-year-old stepped inside from the right flank and swung in an inch-perfect shot to beat Gurpreet and drew first blood.
The Blues could have equalized minutes later as NorthEast goalkeeper Pawan Kumar failed to collect Delgado's low shot from outside the box. Miku tried to follow up on the fumble but Pawan did just enough to push the ball away from the Venezuelan's toes.
NorthEast, though more cautious than before, kept chipping away at the Bengaluru defence in search of their second goal of the match. The Highlanders wouldn't concede till the half-time whistle but were still dealt a huge blow as star striker Bartholomew Ogbeche had to be substituted out after pulling up with what seemed like a hamstring injury.
Despite being a goal down, the biggest hindrance for Bengaluru in the first 45 minutes was perhaps the lack of impact from key players like Udanta Singh and Sunil Chhetri. Chhetri, in particular, ended the first half with just 14 touches and a 40 per cent passing accuracy.
There was a surprise when the teams came out in the second half, with another one of NorthEast’s key players - Rowllin Borges - being taken off. Nikhil Kadam was brought on in his place.
Compared to the first period, the second half was a scrappy affair with most of the play restricted in the midfield. It was the away team who was dominating the possession but lacked the intensity to cause any serious worries for the Highlanders' defence.
NorthEast could have extended their lead on the 70th minute after a quick breakaway move found Federico Gallego with the ball in the opposition third. The Uruguayan played in Mascia with a chipped lob. The Argentine, however, couldn’t get enough power behind the effort.
The Blues' dogged perseverance, however, did pay off eventually. In the 82nd minute, Miku played in Chhetri down the left. The Bengaluru captain, who was quiet for most of the match, sprung to life and took the ball down near the goal line. The 34-year-old then cut the ball back through the tightest of angles to find substitute Xisco Hernandez's run. The Spaniard gratefully slid in to draw things level.
With time running out, there would be yet another twist to the tale. The Highlanders were awarded a penalty in stoppage time after Harmanjot Singh Khabra held onto Mascia and brought him down during a free kick. Mascia himself took on the responsibility and dispatched it past Gurpreet with authority.
That would virtually prove to be the last kick of the match. The Blues will have to overturn a one-goal deficit in the second leg to progress to the final, but they do have the advantage of an away goal.