The Highlanders suffered their second consecutive home defeat in the third edition of the Indian Super League when Atletico de Kolkata came from behind to snatch a 2-1 victory at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati.
The 'Eastern Derby' saw both the clubs enter the fray under immense pressure in the aftermath of their first losses of the season in their respective previous games. NorthEast United replaced the injured Koffi N’Dri and Nicolas Velez with Robert Cullen and Wellington Priori, while Atletico de Kolkata rang in as many as four changes — the most surprising being the exclusion of Iain Hume in favour of Juan Belencoso.
Here are three takeaways from Atletico’s gritty win over NorthEast United in a "classic centre forwards' game".
A tale of two halves
The game’s first chance fell to Atletico through a long-range effort from Javier Lara but it was NorthEast United who dominated the opening forty-five minutes. The Highlanders had started their ISL campaign with flair, not only in their results but also in their gameplay. While injuries to key first-teamers have bogged down Nelo Vingada’s side in recent matches, NorthEast United showcased some of the finesse which helped them ascend the league standings summit.
Katsumi Yusa dictated play through the central channel — Robert Cullen’s movement and Emiliano Alfaro’s positional awareness troubling the Atletico backline. Vingada’s side came close on a couple of occasions, with Cullen being denied by Debjit Majumder and Yusa’s appeal for a penalty waved away by the referee.
Atletico’s deep midfield duo of Borja Fernandez and Stephen Pearson were overrun by an onslaught of slick passes and swift movement by the NorthEast United players. The Atletico custodian Debjit Majumder was quick off his line in the 35th minute to clear the danger when Alfaro almost latched on to a defense-splitting pass at the edge of the box. Eventually, the Uruguayan broke the deadlock in the 39th minute when he directed Nirmal Chhetri’s fantastic cross into the far post.
Atletico’s chances were few and far between in the first half, but the visitors began the second half with an added intensity. Buoyed by the substitutions of Helder Postiga and Robert Lalthlamuana, Atletico pegged back NorthEast United into their own half. Four minutes into the second half, Postiga registered his first shot of the match after Belencoso had won the aerial challenge on Lalrindika Ralte’s cross.
"Helder Postiga’s introduction brought in a new angle to the game and it was difficult for us to stop him even though we got one of our players to man-mark him. He really changed the game and got Atlético de Kolkata better organised," Vingada said after the loss.
The former Portuguese international equalized soon after as Atletico’s sustained pressure on Subrata Paul’s goal paid off. Postiga got away from his marker to head Ralte’s cross into the back of the net. Eighteen minutes later, the marquee player created Atletico’s second when his pass to Ralte caught the NorthEast United defense on the wrong-foot, allowing the young Indian winger to set up Belencoso for a simple finish.
Goals win games
Both the clubs have struggled on the goal-scoring aspect in recent past and the theme continued for the home side — although Emiliano Alfaro sealed his place as the tournament’s top scorer with his fifth goal of the season, Vingada’s men missed a flurry of chances.
On the opposite spectrum, this was only Postiga’s fourth appearance in his two seasons as the marquee player for the Kolkata-based club. Atletico have looked a completely different unit whenever the Portuguese has been on the pitch. An exuberant Jose Molina witnessed from the stands how Postiga changed the complexion of the game with his movement off the ball and eye for the goal. One of the finest centre forwards of this generation, it is crucial for Atletico to ensure the 35-year-old’s fitness to further their chances in this tournament.
"The strikers or forwards should lead the goals and it was an important moment for me and Belencoso as it is good for our confidence but the most important thing is the team, as the team is top of the table right now and I am happy for that and we look to qualify for the semis," Postiga told reporters.
Belencoso has often struggled to influence play as Atletico’s focal point of attack but the Spaniard’s direct approach worked well in tandem with Postiga and his first goal of his ISL career sealed the win for Atletico de Kolkata.
ISL's third edition is too close to call
Almost halfway into the competition, a clear favourite is yet to emerge this season. Atletico de Kolkata’s impressive turnaround to capture the league leader’s spot with twelve points from seven matches, just three days after they were beaten at home by Mumbai City, has once again demonstrated the topsy-turvy nature of the tournament.
With only five points separating the top six teams, a knockout berth is not yet guaranteed for any of the competing clubs. Similar goal differences and closely contested matches have been the trend of the season with all clubs (except for FC Goa) asserting their style and tactical ideologies at some point. The battle for the top four is likely to go down to the wire and it would all depend on which teams grab their chances better over the next five weeks.
Published Date: Oct 29, 2016 12:30 pm | Updated Date: Oct 29, 2016 12:30 pm