ISL 2016: NorthEast United's exit after loss to Kerala Blasters a result of timidity, uncertainty
NorthEast United lost to Kerala Blasters 0-1 at the latter's home turf in a must-win match to bow out of the third edition of the Indian Super League.
Inspiration. With everything at stake, inspiration is more important than ability as it determines what you do. Attitude then, determines how well you do it.
NorthEast United started the season with the hope of finally earning a semi-final berth in the third edition of the tournament. After starting off on a positive note, the 'Highlanders' endured a dip in form and went six games without a win. Kerala’s story, on the other hand, has been different. After a rather flat start to the season, the 'Yellow army', aided by the return of CK Vineeth, have put on great performances in recent games.
The good news for the visitors though, as they entered a virtual quarter-final against Kerala Blasters in Kochi on Sunday night, was that they had shown a slight upturn in form and fortune over the past few weeks.
Mumbai City FC, Delhi Dynamos and Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) had already claimed three out of the four spots available, and it was left to the Blasters and NorthEast to fight it out for the last one.
The visitors were playing in front of a 53,000-large crowd at the Blasters' base of Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium following a convincing win against Delhi Dynamos at home. It was a very encouraging win and a positive performance from a side that has not played up to their potential a lot of times.
The visitors arguably had the most arduous task, considering Kerala Blasters have been dominant at home. In front of one of the most passionate and fervent supporters, Steve Coppell’s side had won four matches in a row before facing NorthEast United. The fans play a crucial role for any side, and Kerala fans give everything for their team and indeed act like the twelfth man.
Just that the pre-match statistics/key facts put the visitors on the backfoot. Nelo Vingada was also without three key players in Subrata Pal, Gustavo Lazarretti and Nico Velez. Although by the coach's own admission, he spoke about the match being more of a mental battle than anything else, so for the eventual result, these absentees shouldn’t be regarded as the primary factor. Besides, NorthEast put on an excellent performance against Delhi with the same eleven.
Seityasen Singh was the best player for the visitors in the first half, and came close a few times. The clash got off to a spirited start with both outfits trying to make a lot of chances, before becoming lacklustre after the passage of the opening minutes. Kerala, for whom even a draw would be suffice to make it to the semi-finals, were content to sit back and were relying on counter-attacks.
Despite several chances for both sides, the first half finished goalless. Eventually, it was the home side that broke the deadlock with India international Vineeth scoring a delightful 66th minute goal. Once NorthEast went behind, the onus was on them to come out and play.
Vineeth got the ball on the edge of the six-yard box, cut in past right back Robin Gurung, and shot it right past Rehenesh, resulting in the stadium erupting with joy.
After going behind, NorthEast went all-out in search of an equaliser. The visitors were desperate for goals to stage a comeback. Anyone following the 'Highlanders' this season would know this pattern of theirs, and these late surges have proved to be too little too late more often than not. The thrilling draw against Chennaiyin FC was clearly an aberration as the visitors carry it over to this game.
During the closing minutes of the match, it did look like NorthEast were knocking on Kerala’s door, but it wasn’t enough. It were the Blasters who registered five shots on target in the last 15 minutes of the game, illustrating that they were the better side with more direct chances. Coppell had the option of bringing in vivacity and pace from the bench in the form of Antonio German. They were once denied by the referee’s call for offside, and once by the crossbar as Rehenesh made a smart save. As much as the term 'deserve' is misplaced in sports, they finished the game the better side.
The home side clearly were superior, and part of that was NorthEast’s mix of timidity and uncertainty. Some of the visiting players didn't show for passes, while some were slow with their decision making. The 'second ball' was almost never there, with the players strangely not engaging in the same.
The difference between the two sides proved to be inspiration. The Guwahati outfit needed more inspiration on the pitch than they were offered. It is the players who can deliver that that usually end up as the match-winners and deciders. Vineeth did exactly that for the Blasters. He was immense and instrumental on the pitch, made himself very busy and ensured that his side was the one leaving the game on top. On the contrary, NorthEast’s attacks didn’t reflect the same sort of positivity. For large parts of the match, Emiliano Alfaro was somewhat isolated up-top, in no danger of wriggling clear and was entirely containable.
Perhaps it's harsh to be too critical, since NorthEast lost only by a goal. But they always knew that a solitary shot to the net could be the difference. Eventually, Northeast left it too late, in the game, as well as this season.
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