In a virtually chanceless game for both teams, NEUFC and ATK played out a drab draw as both sides failed to break down their opposition to share the points on Saturday at the Sarusajai Sports Conplex, Guwahati.
Already battling a gruelling schedule, the Highlanders had to combat another difficult game at home within three days after playing a hard-fought draw against league leaders Bengaluru FC.
The Highlanders started the brighter of the two sides with Redeem Tlang proving to be the driving force down the right channel and started tormenting Ricky Lallawawma with his decisive runs. In the 8th minute, Redeem found himself in a good shooting position but was closed down by Gerson forcing him to shoot wide.
We maintained good pressure on ATK within the first 20 minutes forcing ATK to concede two back to back corners from the sustained attack. Rowllin Borges came close to scoring from the second corner but the towering header failed to meet the target.
Redeem continued giving Ricky a harrowing time as he twisted and turned beautifully in the 21st minute, wrongfooting the defender before unleashing a powerful shot between the legs of Andre Bikey forcing the keeper into a diving save.
The real chance for the visitors came in the 30th minute when ATK forward Balwant managed to beat the offside trap and found himself in an inviting position in front of the goal after being fed a looping ball from the deep. The striker attempted a cheeky lob over the keeper instead of a volley resulting in an easy save from our keeper Pawan Kumar.
With the season already bolted by injuries, we were handed yet another woeful injury after Mislav Komorski limped off with an apparent hamstring injury at the brink of halftime, only to be replaced by Gurwinder Singh.
With none of the sides making decisive inroads in the first forty-five, the teams went into the break goalless.
We had the better possession and passing accuracy and moved the ball around well trying to break down ATK's resistance. Steve Coppell clearly had his tactical vision in place as ATK defended all attacks coming their way.
With two deep-lying midfielders in place, Hitesh Sharma and Everton Santos kept the attacking third compact so Gallego and Redeem had to spread their distribution on the flanks in order to create chances.
There was no change in the intent of ATK as they were happy defending while we kept trying to move the ball in search of that final pass into the box to create a chance for Ogbeche.
In the 75th minute, Reagan Singh did well to outrun Ankit Mukherjee and put the ball to the feet of Ogbeche just outside the box. Ogbeche with space and time took a powerful shot but the effort went straight to the keeper.
As the match entered the final 15 minutes, Eelco went for two tactical switches bringing in Nikhil Kadam for Redeem and Mascia for Puitea.
ATK were happy to play on the break and use their tall frame from set-pieces creating few edgy moments for us in the 81st minute from a free-kick. El Maimouni Noussair dangerously floated the freekick inside the box which fell to Everton Santos. Everton Santos's shot was blocked by Gurwinder and eventually, Hitesh Sharma blasted the second ball wide off the target.
The match was a tactically tight game with both teams playing very compact formations without giving too much away.
Mato had an excellent game for us, especially after losing his compatriot Mislav around the half-way mark due to an injury. Mato has been like a silent rock for us and displayed another night of his astute defending skills and ability to marshal the backline to keep yet another clean-sheet.
Leudo rightly adjudged the 'Hero of the Match' was precocious in usual role keeping things tight in front of the back-four. Leudo's midfield dynamics with Rowllin was once again crucial for us and was pivotal in stealing possession and churning out attacks from the deep.
The fatigue of playing three games in 8 eight days clearly affected our players and dynamic 'moving football' that the Highlanders have dazzled with this season. The fatigue did not allow us to execute the tactical rotations and lateral passing to move the ball and tire the opposition that has been the trademark of our brilliant display this season under our gaffer, Eelco Schattorie.
In the end, it was an uneventful draw as both teams shared a point with none of the teams really getting a chance to get away with the game.
The Highlanders, keeping in view of the circumstances, were happy to have secured a point and we positioned ourselves back in second place opening up a four point lead over ATK and Jamshedpur FC.
Assistant Coach Shaun Ontong commented on the game, "You don't go into any game wanting to draw the game but considering our schedule and what we had to overcome, backing up from Bengaluru FC in the last game, we are extremely happy and extremely proud of the guys.
I think you saw a very fatigued team out there tonight, but we defended very well. Still, although we did not create many chances, maybe, as we wanted too. I still think we defended really well and dominated most of the game."
The Highlanders have now accumulated 20 points from 11 games and sit second on the league table. We face FC Goa on 14th December in a crucial away game before going in for the extended six-weeks break to propel our playoff challenge during the second half of the ISL season 5.
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