The Highlanders rue lack of finishing after going down 1-0 to NEROCA FC in their first friendly.
The Highlanders played their first official friendly of the season as they took on I-League runners-up, NEROCA FC, on Saturday at the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal.
In a high intensity and hotly contested encounter dominated by the Highlanders' unrelenting attack, the home side sneaked away with a narrow 1-0 win. A close-range 25th minute header from Aryn Williams separated the two sides despite NorthEast United seeing more of the ball and creating more chances.
NorthEast United FC began with a 4-3-3 formation, with Mato Grgic and Mislav Komorski starting at the heart of the defence. Rowllin Borges played as the defensive midfielder while Redeem Tlang and Nikhil Kadam started in the midfield.
Eelco kept his attacking line flexible with Ogbeche playing as the target man while Federico Gallego and Okrah were deployed on the flanks to add pace to the side.
The match started on a high note as both teams traded attacks and tried to sneak in an early lead into the game. NorthEast United had the major share of possession with swift interchange of passes and controlled the game well while NEROCA FC defended well in tight spaces and looked to hit back through counter attacks.
Ogbeche had some promising chances to open the scoring but failed to hit the target as oppotunities came thick and fast inside NEROCA's box. Augustine Okrah and Nikhil Kadam kept the aerial supply inside the box going as NorthEast United FC looked dangerous pressing forward while NEROCA FC maintained their shape well and closed off open channels of play in their half.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 25th minute as the Australian, Aryn Williams, found the back of the net with a neat header inside the six-yard box from a free kick, pretty much against the run of play.
With a 1-0 lead, NEROCA organized themselves defensively and played compact football going into the break to preserve their advantage despite the Highlanders penetrating the box frequently looking for an equalizer.
Back in the second half. NEROCA absorbed the pressure well as Ogbeche & Co ramped up the attacking intensity, dropping deep at times to construct attacks. Kallon Varney and Eduardo marshalled NEROCA's defence well as they shunted out any threat inside the box.
Head Coach Eelco tried to tactically reshape the team to open the attacking channels, bringing in Jose Leudo to replace Borges and Rupert Nongrum in place of Redeem Tlang, to add more dynamics to the midfield.
The Highlanders looked dangerous with the newly injected pace while Leudo played as the crucial 'pivot' to feed the attacking line as they relentlessly attacked NEROCA's back-line but weren’t clinical enough to change the scoreline.
Coach Eelco brought on the Uruguayan forward, Juan Cruz Mascia, into the mix to add more teeth, but NEROCA showed some tenacious defending to keep the Highlanders at bay.
As the clock ticked by, the Highlanders pushed bodies forward and with six minutes of injury time added on, it gave an opportunity to the Highlanders to steal a last-gasp equalizer.
Ogbeche had few gilt-edged opportunities to breach the back-line deep into the game, but on a day that didn't seem to favour the former PSG man, the equalizer seemed elusive.
As the referee signalled the end of the play, the Highlanders lost the match by a slender 1-0 margin in their first official friendly on a star-crossed day due to their lack of clinical finishing around the 18-yard box.
Despite the loss, Eelco's side will have a lot of positives to take back from the game in terms of passing and possession they exhibited with a few areas to work upon before the facing FC Goa in their first game of season 5 of the Hero Indian Super League.