NorthEast United FC breathed new life into a dying campaign with a hard fought victory over FC Pune City on Tuesday.
For a side that has been winless in six matches, it takes a lot to turn things around. In a short tournament like the Indian Super League (ISL), it's probably more challenging because managers cannot hide behind football clichés like the "team is in transition" or it is a "work in progress".
But progress was made on Tuesday night at Guwahati as NorthEast United, who had taken two points from six matches, finally ended one with three points.
Coach Nelo Vingada termed the tie against FC Pune City "crucial" for the side's aspirations. With a handful of matches remaining, and NorthEast going into this match ranked at the bottom of the table, the Portuguese manager wasn't exaggerating. Some excruciating losses and a draw had resulted in the team falling into crisis, but the Highlanders have been rejuvenated following their win over Pune.
It could have easily been another painful day in the office as Pune kept threatening in the first half. They were once denied by the woodwork, and on another occasion by Subrata Pal's acrobatic skills. The goalkeeper has received his fair share of criticism, but on Tuesday, he was as instrumental for his side getting three points as Romaric, who scored with a stunning free kick.
In the 78th minute, Gustavo Oberman played the ball into the path of Arata Izumi, who chested it towards Pitu. The Pune player shot from point blank range, and it certainly looked headed towards goal, but Pal's reaction save kept NorthEast in the match. Just three minutes later, Pune defender Eduardo Ferrera ended up touching the ball with his hand right outside the box, resulting in a NorthEast free kick. Romaric made no mistake and took an inch-perfect set-piece as his powerful shot deceived the goalkeeper and struck the left side of the goal. After 540 minutes, NorthEast finally got that elusive victory.
At the beginning of the season, it seemed that the biggest advantage for NorthEast would be its attack. Their performances showed that the side would probably not be dependent on one man to get the goals as Nicolas Velez, Emiliano Alfaro and Katsumi Yusa quickly formed a fine chemistry on the attacking third of the pitch. But the goals haven't been shared between players.
Like the previous two seasons, the defending has been great for the Guwahati outfit and once again, NorthEast have conceded the second fewest number of goals.
The pertinent problem is at the opposite end of the pitch as NorthEast have put in the joint second least number of goals in the tournament - nine. Out of these, Alfaro has scored five, which is more than half. This means that if the Uruguayan fails to get on the score sheet, there are not many players who can be relied upon to break the deadlock. Last season's top scorer for the Highlanders, Velez, has only struck the back of the net once in the tournament. Romaric, Katsumi and Seityasen Singh have got on the score sheet once each as well.
Granted, some of the results have been rough on Vingada's side, but they haven't shown the same positivity in the last few matches as they did in the first few, and this has naturally reflected on the score sheet. Vingada's philosophy has been rigid, negative and unambitious and even though he clearly wants to win, the tactics he has employed has suggested that he would rather see out a draw than go for the win.
There was an encouraging shift of things in Guwahati on Tuesday night. After NorthEast went ahead in the 81st minute, precedence suggested that Vingada would ask his players to go behind the ball and defend as a unit. However, players kept coming forward whenever they had chances.
NorthEast now move into the sixth place, level on points with seventh-placed Chennayin, and one behind Kerala Blasters. With three matches remaining and the teams placed close one another in the points table, the Highlanders still have a genuine chance of booking a semi-final berth. They must maintain their positivity and look to continue their upward trajectory.
The problem is that while NorthEast remain committed at the back, they look woefully short up front.