It can be easily argued that wins where teams have to grind out victories, are often more crucial, and demand more respect than a goal fest. Liverpool's 2-1 win over Swansea City was more valuable than their 5-1 thrashing of Hull City. A win like the former demonstrates character and guile. Even if one disregards this, there are other reasons which make NorthEast United FC's 1-0 win over FC Pune City special.
After playing three matches in just a week’s time, the Highlanders went into this match with five days' rest. Teams often show fatigue even after getting a week off in European leagues; so it was natural to see NorthEast, with the busiest schedule so far in the Indian Super League (ISL), show some signs of exhaustion. They also went a man down in the 36th minute.
However, they still managed to get three points and maintain their dominance in the league table, and that should be commended. Nelo Vingada's team showed they could adapt to challenges by extracting the hard-fought win at the Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex Stadium at Balewadi on Wednesday.
Pune City began the match with positivity but were unable to make the most of the attacking threat provided through crosses. As the match progressed, NorthEast United FC got more settled, and there was a lot of action in the heart of the pitch.
However, neither side could make headway. Things looked grim for the visitors when Nirmal Chhetri, given the first start of the season by coach Vinganda, was sent off for a lunging tackle on Anibal Zurdo.
Owner John Abraham wasn’t pleased with the referee’s decision and called the card “debatable” at half-time. He was, however, confident of his team and coach’s ability. Abraham’s trust wasn’t misplaced, as NorthEast were able to get the crucial goal.
Pune were unable to make the one man advantage count while it was there, as Eduardo was sent off in the second half after a second booking. Coach Antonio Habas, watching from the stands, wouldn’t have been pleased with what he saw as Pune didn’t look like they had the numerical advantage at all. In fact, it was NorthEast that seemed like the ones to break the deadlock.
And in the 79th minute, they did. Emiliano Alfaro continued his good form in front of the goal and grabbed the winner for his side. It was, however, a goal where luck played a crucial role, but in such a contest, a side has to earn its luck and NorthEast had done exactly that.
What makes them such an exciting side is the fact that play like a team, and are not one with star players leading inexperienced and raw, albeit talented players. With all due respect to Didier Zokora’s long and illustrious career, NorthEast’s marquee player doesn’t exude the star power that the likes of Nicolas Anelka or Alessandro Del Pierro had in the past. This is undoubtedly playing a part as everyone is stepping up and delivering. Sometimes, Indian players are intimidated playing alongside such big stars, and it shows on the pitch. But even with Zokora’s experience and aura, NorthEast are able to gel well on the pitch. John Abraham and company have built a unit and have got a great coach to lead that group.
The best example would be the combination of the 24-year-old Indian midfielder Rowlin Borges and the 33-year-old Ivory Coast midfielder Romaric. The two are combining extremely well in the heart of the pitch, and are keeping the momentum constantly ticking. Borges has so far been the unsung hero for NorthEast. He finished the match with one interception, three tackles and two blocks. Considering the visiting side’s defence was vulnerable after Chhetri’s departure, the need for Borges to shield the defence well was even more crucial. He didn’t disappoint.
The attacking trident of Nicolas Velez, Katsumi Yusa and Emiliano Alfaro has been incredible for NorthEast so far, and astonishingly enough, all three played a part in the goal on Wednesday. The trio’s work rate throughout the match was commendable, and eventually, it got them the goal.
Despite Alfaro getting on the scoresheet, Velez’s contribution needs to be highlighted. The Argentine had four shots in the match; made two interceptions, one tackle, 37 passes, and six crosses. He was constantly seen running on the flanks, and Pune City’s fullbacks were just not able to deal with him.
Three more points and NorthEast continue their blistering campaign. There is no let up in their busy schedule, as they travel to Delhi to take on last season’s semi-finalists Delhi Dynamos at the Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium on Saturday. The Lions have played just twice, and have looked like a cohesive unit in both the matches. They could prove to be a test for Vingada’s side, but NorthEast has so far managed to overcome all the tests with flying colours.