NorthEast United FC have played three matches in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 thus far in the span of one week — the busiest schedule for any side — and though the team won their first two, Friday's defeat shows they need to be more clinical and make their chances count.
Going into the match, away to Mumbai City FC, NEUFC would have known a win would give them three wins out of three and nine points on the board. As things stand, however, they have six points from three matches, which is still much better than the starts they have had in previous seasons. More importantly, the Highlanders have shown they have a lot more to offer this year as against the previous editions.
For a team which has never progressed beyond the league stage, they genuinely look like they have the ability to win the tournament this time around. This is impressive, particularly given the fact that they don't have any "big name" players in their ranks.
This was the first time Mumbai were playing on their new home ground, the Mumbai Football Arena in Andheri, and marquee signing Diego Forlan ensured the side started well, with a well-taken 55th minute penalty that was enough to secure full points.
Unlike Mumbai, who made no changes, NEUFC manager Nelo Vingada altered his line-up with three changes to the team that overcame FC Goa. Marquee signing Didier Zokora made his first start, coming in for Maílson Alves; Seityasen Singh and Nicolas Velez were also included in the playing XI.
NorthEast began the match brightly and had a few chances to get ahead. Unfortunately, they weren't able to capitalise on any. Midfielder Koffi N'Dri, known as Romaric, had a clear look at the rival goal but his left-footed volley from just outside the box was well-judged by Mumbai goalkeeper Roberto Neto. Katsumi Yusa later had a great chance to give his side the lead, when Velez slipped the ball through to the Japanese, but he somehow ended up skying it.
Finally, in the 54th minute, NorthEast's defence had a moment of failure and insecurity when Raegan Singh tripped Pronay inside the box. It was not just Singh's fault alone, however, as Zokora didn't clear the ball and instead passed it to Gustavo. The centre back then passed it to Reagen instead of releasing it. Eventually, uncertainty in the box cost NorthEast three points.
Subrata Paul almost got a touch to Forlan's penalty, but it wasn't enough to stop it from going in. Paul too would be happy with his performance on the night, against his former team. His is looking like another incredibly smart signing made by NEUFC. Given Paul's solid work between the sticks, it remains to be seen if TP Rehenesh will even get a look-in.
Considering the side has played three matches in one week, it's perhaps understandable that the players looked fatigued. But even so, NEUFC looked splendid for long stretches of the match. In the second half, Indian prodigy Jerry Mawihmingthanga played a beautiful through-ball for Alfaro, but the previous game's goalscorer wasn't able to get on the scoresheet, and his attempt was saved by Volpato. Alfaro later drew out Golan and played a good ball to Katsumi Yusa, but despite being unmarked, Yusa could only shoot it straight into the hands of the Mumbai City goalkeeper.
It is the wastefulness in front of goal that will hurt the players. The Highlanders were the pace-setters, and had a few great chances to get ahead in the game. Mumbai managed to survive the onslaught without conceding a goal. And though the home side didn't create anything valuable in open play, a mistake from Raegen was enough to gift the side the three points.
NorthEast need to make their chances count; they have to get the goal and be more clinical in front. It almost cost them against Kerala Blasters, and it did cost them against Mumbai. This is something Nelo Vingada needs to work with his players.
Things will not ease up any time soon for NEUFC, as they travel to Pune for a fourth match on Wednesday. They must ensure they can make a few necessary changes, regroup, and come back strong at Balewadi's Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex. While it certainly looks like the Indira Gandhi Stadium in Guwahati can be made into a fortress this season, NorthEast need to be equally good on the road to realise their dream of winning the league.