Atletico de Kolkata produced late fireworks to deny NorthEast United FC their first win in six matches on an afternoon Emiliano Alfaro will want to forget.
The Highlanders haven't been able to get out of a losing spiral after an emphatic start to the season and have been looming around the bottom of the table for some time now. Four losses on the trot is a difficult run of form to recover from, and Thursday's game against Eastern rivals Atletico indeed came at the worst possible time.
Things haven't been working for the Guwahati outfit lately and quite evidently, manager Nelo Vingada hasn't been able to find a way to change this either. If this were a longer tournament, perhaps John Abraham and Co would have taken the traditional decision to sack the boss. But in such a condensed format, firing a manager midway makes little or no sense, especially when he has a massive amount of experience under his belt.
A first-half strike from Nicolas Velez — his first one this season — was almost enough to give the visitors three crucial points. However, once again, NorthEast should have scored more goals. It was especially shocking when Emiliano Alfaro, the league's top scorer, failed to find the back of the net around the 82nd minute. With the keeper already down on the floor, he had an empty net to aim at, but inexplicably played the ball right into Debjit Majumder's hands. Had Atletico not scored a late goal, NorthEast could have gone home with all three points.
Sadly, it couldn't happen as Iain Hume scored in the dying embers of the game. The particular goal also meant that he has now scored against each side in the league. He deserved it for being a workhorse throughout the match.
One point is better than none, but three points are better than one.
This might sound like Michael Owen doing his classic commentary, but it is an obvious fact that needs to be reiterated. The result against Atletico will come as a blow for the side. For 85 minutes, NorthEast led the game. The late strike ensured they were still winless in six games, which is almost half the league stage of the tournament itself.
Viganda's tactics of keeping everyone behind the ball and being defensive after getting ahead cost them once again. They needed that second goal and needed to be positive. Amazingly, as soon as they went a goal up, they kept bodies behind and focused on not conceding a goal. The 4-1-4-1 formation set out by the manager was compact and disciplined, and even though they almost got the three points because of it, eventually it failed. Trying to sit back and protect a one-goal lead is always a dangerous proposition. The opponent always has a shot at getting a draw out of the game, and that's what happened in Kolkata. The defensive style of play hasn’t worked for NorthEast this season, and things need to be changed.
Injuries in the backline through the course of the match also played a significant role for the side coming short eventually. With fifteen minutes left, Robin Gurung and Gustavo Lazzaretti had to come off as they were possibly struggling with hamstring issues. With this, the organisation of the defence went astray, and it no more commanded the same defensive authority. A closer look also showed the shoddy marking led to Atletico's late goal.
Fortunately, they are still in the mix for the semi-final, but it could prove to be an uphill task.
For a side that started the tournament as brightly as NorthEast did, it has been strange to see them struggling so badly lately. They were winning when things were difficult and games were coming without any breaks, but when things have become smooth in terms of the fixtures, NorthEast have failed to find that same winning momentum.
The players, management and fans would hope this draw - still an upgrade over four consecutive losses - will act as a decent springboard for the remaining four games as NorthEast could still get a semi-final berth if they get wins at the business end of the season. But their form suggests that they’re struggle to do so. As Vince Lombardi Jr. once said, “Winning is a habit, unfortunately, so is losing”.