The doors for the playoffs are creaking to close as we made our playoff charge difficult after dropping points against Delhi Dynamos FC. The race for the Playoffs is heating up with just seven points separating second and sixth placed teams and all five teams in with a chance to qualify.
With the weight of the history of not having qualified for the Playoffs threatening to pin us down, we found our Playoff charge suffer a setback on an evening of suffocating tension as we played out a 1-1 draw against eighth-place Delhi Dynamos FC.
Even the gift of a relatively soft penalty was not enough to extinguish the nerves choking the Highlanders, heightening the impression that Eelco ’s Brigade is finally showing signs of wear and tear as we go into the difficult phase of the league trying to seal-off a top four spot this season.
This was the second successive game the Highlanders were gripped by stage fright, with our anxiety captured by the moment when Rowllin Borges fluffed a glorious opportunity to steal the points deep into the added time of a fraught contest. Time stood still when Gallego’s pass fooled Delhi’s back four and the stage seemed set for Rowllin to bury the ball into the net in the 95th minute but the seemingly simple tap in crashed into the underside of the bar and came out as the match ended moments later to signal yet another frustrating night for us.
Playing 4-4-2 from the start, with Leudo slotting into place instead of injured Mislav while Pana Triadis made it to the starting XI for the first time, the Highlanders had difficulty in the first fifteen minutes to control the game in the ragged formation.
With Pana Triadis, Ogbeche playing upfront, and Gallego playing in his liberal fluidic attacking role, we were bright and inventive in possession. It spoke volumes that Coach Eelco expressed his disappointment at the draw.
The first 15 minutes saw both teams failing to make any decisive opening with both teams playing rather loose football with the lack of any substantial build-up or creating any threatening chances.
In the 21st minute, Ogbeche was fed by a brilliant ball from Triadis into the box but the striker was narrowed down to a tight angle and eventually his attempt to play the ball in the six-yard box was blocked by Zuiverloon.
The Highlanders had a shocking moment in the 24th minute when Rowllin’s heavy backpass resulted in a failed clearance from TP Rehnesh and the ball fell to Chhangte who charged into the empty space but Rehenesh redeemed himself by pulling off a brilliant one-on-one save to amend for his mistakes.
With the game lacking fluidity and organization, our Gaffer went for a tactical switch in the 32nd minute, bringing in defender Gurwinder Singh for Redeem Tlang as we switched to a 4-3-3 formation with Leudo and Borges playing in the middle as the pivot to have more control in the midfield. The switch made things easier for Highlanders to play their usual style of football by building attacks from the deep and that got us in a better, more organized shape to feed the attack line.
The Lions had odd chances throughout the first half and found space in the 38th minute with Nandha Kumar running into wide spaces down the right channel and followed with an intelligent cutback to find Plascencia. Plascencia’s attempted shot went straight to the keeper, as TP fisted it out to avert any impending danger.
With Triadis dazzling on the left-wing time and again. A flash of brilliance from the German-Greek winger raised the hopes of the fans as the brilliantly curled shot from inside the box floored Rana Gharami, but the curler was denied by the crossbar as both teams went into the break locked at 0-0.
Back in the second half, Pana needled through a beautiful pass to Ogbeche who managed to beat the offside trap and found himself in an enticing position with the goalkeeper advanced from his goal-line at his mercy. With the uncertainty of an offside coupled with too much time and space, Ogbeche got himself in an awkward position and put his shot wide off the target to the utter disappointment and disbelief of the crowd.
The Highlanders started to rush their passes. Teammates glared at each other after snatched decisions in the final third. With the minutes ticking away and emotions rising, hope flared when Federico Gallego wriggled through on the left and made to shape one of those trademark turns and finish it with flash shots into the bottom corner, but that too missed the target. It was beginning to feel like one of those nights where everything was just not working out.
Pana Triadis produced yet another moment of glitter when the winger outmanoeuvred a couple of defenders on the left before pulling off a cheeky rabona chip to Ogbeche, whose leaping header went straight to the keeper.
Playing without luck as Triadis was tearing apart Rana on right back.
In the 61st minute, Romeo Fernandes replaced Chhangte and almost scored with his first touch as our backline was caught off-guard when Nandhakumar’s cross went straight to Romeo but he failed to keep his shot within the target, signalling yet another moment of danger for the Highlanders.
We came close to scoring in the 66th minute, as Ogebeche’s clever chip found Gallego but the Montevideo magician’s shot went at a comfortable height for the keeper to save. We conceded immediately in a swift transition attack from Delhi, as Romeo’s cross was parried away into the box by TP Rehnesh into the path of an advancing Marcos Tebar, who finished it from the edge of the six-yard box with an easy tap in to give the visitor’s a 1-0 lead.
The Highlanders struck back immediately through a penalty after Rowllin’s through ball gave Bart Ogbeche an opportunity to outrun his marker Narayan Das as the defender pushed the striker from behind. With an element of brushing from the back, the linesman raised his flag for the foul forcing the referee to point at the spot kick with the timely assistance from the linesman as Bart’s immaculate penalty sent Dorronsoro the wrong way to make it 1-1.
The last 20 minutes saw, Coach Eelco, putting in Juan Mascia in place of Ogbeche due to the lack of cutting edge in front of goal as we plundered the Delhi backline with an unrelenting wave of attack in search of the winner.
In the six minutes of added time, Pana Triadis and Federico Gallego peppered the Delhi box with dangerous crosses but lack of goal-mouth quality and clinical finishing haunted us again after the Bengaluru FC game as Rowllin’s effort from point-blank range got denied by the cross-piece as the match ended in a hard-fought 1-1 but a little bit of quality could have given us all three points.
With 24 points from 15 games, we are precariously placed fourth on the league table as we travel to Mumbai to face the Islanders on 13th February 2019.