NorthEast United kicked the new season of the ISL off with hopes of reaching the final stage for the first time, and consequently, starting on a positive note. The Highlanders have never progressed beyond the group stage, though they showed massive improvement last season, falling just two points short of reaching the semifinal. This season, John Abraham's NorthEast aims to better that, and finally reward their adoring fanbase with a shot at the trophy.
Kerala Blasters came into the game off the back of a disastrous season, a season that saw them finish bottom of the table. Their only away victory last season came at Guwahati against NorthEast United. If they thought they would find things as simple this time around too, they were in for a surprise.
NorthEast kept most of the possession for the large part of the opening 30 minutes, and Kerala were forced to sit back and soak up the pressure. There were barely any penetrating runs made by Kerala, ones that could threaten the home defence. One could, however, argue that NorthEast made sure Kerala didn't attack. The home side was positive while attacking, and ensured their opponents were forced to sit back and defend.
The stand out player for NorthEast would certainly be goalscorer Katsumi Yusa. Signing Yusa was a shrewd move from the management, because not only does he add goals to the team, he also adds valuable experience – which is significant because he has played the last three seasons with Mohun Bagan and is intimate with the conditions of Indian football. Yusa was regularly involved in all the attacking plays, and it didn’t come as a surprise that he ended the game on the scoresheet.
It was a well-deserved goal for the ISL debutante, the only one of the match. He worked hard throughout the game and made no mistake getting on the back of a Nicolas Velez cross. It was almost a training goal with the player making the run at the far post. The Japanese attacking midfielder, was in the right place at the right time, making sure his ISL debut got off to a dream start.
Velez, for whom ISL 2016 marks his second season with the club, should also receive a lot of credit for the goal. It was his pinpoint cross that saw Yusa strike the back of the net. The Argentine forward did incredibly well to beat Sandesh Jhingan on that left flank. NorthEast looked their most threatening on the left side, and we might see a lot of similar attacks in the coming games as well. A successful partnership between Velez and Yusa make NorthEast's prospects this season brighter.
NorthEast fans also got a glimpse at their star signing Didier Zokora, who came on the pitch in the 78th minute. He will inevitably be involved more in the coming games, and will add further steel to the heart of the pitch.
Subrata Paul started the game, ahead of Rehenesh. The 23-year-old Kerala-born keeper has impressed in his two seasons at the club, but Paul was signed to strengthen the squad further. The former Mumbai City goalkeeper made some good saves in the second half when Kerala finally got going. However, he was lucky to escape with a clean sheet on his debut for his new side as his 62nd-minute blunder could have easily resulted in a goal for the Kerala team.
He bizarrely came off his line in the attempt to catch the ball and failed to get a hold of it. It fell kindly for Kerala’s Kernes Belfort, and the striker had an open goal to aim towards. Luckily for Paul, Belfort couldn't keep his shot on target and let Paul off the hook. The Arjuna Award-winning Indian goalkeeper knows he has a very talented young custodian in Rehenesh waiting for a chance to restore his place in the starting line-up, and will have to make sure he is constantly on his toes and not make similar defensive errors. It almost cost his team valuable points.
Overall, it was an encouraging performance from the hosts, but they will feel the need to improve in some departments, notably efficiency. The lack of proficiency in front of goal could have let the side down. Nelo Vingada’s side dominated the first half but failed to thread the final pass and get that crucial goal until the 55th minute. Being clinical is an important part of football – you have to make your chances count, and for a large proportion of the game, NorthEast failed to do the same.
Had Subrata Pal’s second half howler led to a Kerala goal, NorthEast would have had to share the spoils, and it could have cost them in the long run. Nelo Vingada was honest in his assessment of the game and acknowledged that the quality of the match wasn’t great and that his side could have played better.
NorthEast have shown a glimpse of their potential. Led by a pragmatic and vastly experienced coach, the Highlanders have demonstrated that they have the ability to go the distance third time around. They will take it one step at a time, but three points from the first game is a start and a good start at that.