In what has been a dull Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 so far, the match between Delhi Dynamos and NorthEast United FC on Saturday should stand out as an anomaly. The two sides played end-to-end, attacking football and gave viewers the most entertaining match of the season so far.
Every time the Dynamos host NEUFC, it's always an exciting time because of the support the away side enjoys in the capital city. Saturday night's encounter was no different, and 27,000 people turned up at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which rarely ever sees such large numbers for an ISL fixture.
Matches between the two franchises in Delhi are always intense because of the away side’s support in the capital of the country. The third edition was no different with the away crowd turning up in impressive numbers. 27,000 is a large number for Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which rarely sees so many fans attend an ISL fixture. But while playing in front of large crowds at home might be a novelty for the Dynamos, it's something NEUFC have gotten used to. In every post-match conference after every match in Delhi, NEUFC managers have remarked about the support and how it made his side feel at home. That would have certainly been one of the factors that helped the away side come back and earn a point.
But while the crowd support helped NEUFC claim one point, goalkeeper Subrata Paul's below par showing might have been the reason they didn't take all three. The Highlanders remain top of the table thanks to Emiliano Alfaro's running hot streak, but manager Nelo Vingada must be concerned with Paul's performance, and would perhaps consider giving the veteran some rest, especially considering there is a talented goalkeeper waiting on the bench. TP Rehenesh would have started his third season with the club as their first choice goalkeeper, but Vingada decided to use Paul's experience.
The Arjuna Award winner arrived from Mumbai City FC and was brought in to bring experience and competition to the side. He has performed well so far, but there have been a few nervy moments. And while they haven't cost NEUFC much, it's also down to their opponents failing to make the most of these chances. Also, these defensive lapses haven't cost the team much.
Against Delhi Dynamos, however, it did. Kean Lewis capitalised on Paul's failure to deal with a cross in the 39th minute. It was nothing more than a routine corner and all Paul needed to do was catch or punch the ball away. But the 29-year-old missed it completely. Lewis, who has been enjoying great form of late, wasn't about to miss out on such an enticing opportunity.
This wasn't the first lapse in judgment from Paul though. The NEUFC goalkeeper struggled to hold on to some loose shots from outside the box, which fortunately didn't cost his team much. Paul is a prominent figure in the Indian football fraternity, but his reputation shouldn't stop a talented young goalkeeper from featuring in the first team.
NorthEast need to work at defending set pieces more convincingly. Far too often, Delhi got a lot of free headers. Gianluca Zambrotta's men could have caused a lot of damage aerially, but failed to make those chances count. And eventually, though it wasn't a header, the inability to deal with a similar situation cost the visiting side the opening goal. Delhi, in fact, were sloppy in possession and attack. They had a lot of chances to make their mark and walk away with three points. They failed to make those count.
Nicolas Velez and Emiliano Alfaro's blossoming partnership in front of goal is certainly working out wonderfully. The duo was responsible for the side's only goal in the 50th minute. Velez got possession and ran towards Delhi goalkeeper Toni Doblas, before squaring it for Alfaro, who converted the shot on his second attempt.
Five games into the season, NorthEast have had more than an adequate start. Three wins, one draw and just a single loss means they are still glued to the top of the table. The second half of the season is beginning very shortly for them, and they need to carry this form forward to ensure they finally have a spot in the semi-finals.
While the formula is more or less working for the professor, perhaps he needs to mix things up to try and extract results. Lallianzuala Chhangte and Jerry Mawihmingthanga are two young Indian forwards waiting in the squad to make a mark. Alfaro, Velez and Yusa have performed very well, but bringing in one of the two young strikers could help in the side maintaining this momentum.
NEUFC get a little breather from their busy schedule, as they head back to Guwahati to face Mumbai City FC on Thursday. After three games on the road, the Highlanders are back at home for this tie, and Viganda's men will want to ensure they get a win in Guwahati. The crucial question will be whether the 63-year-old, reputed to be a pragmatist, fields Paul in goal against his former side, or brings in Rehenesh, who is waiting to be unleashed.