After the high of beating Mumbai City FC in the previous game, the Highlanders needed three points to secure their playoff spot which suffered a setback after being held to a 1-1 draw against FC Pune City on Wednesday.
FC Pune City under their new Coach Phil Brown have completely turned around their early season woes as they went into the game in prime run of form with two wins and a draw post the mid-season break.
The visitors playing an unconventional 5-3-2 formation posed us a difficulty in breaking them down from the middle as chances created in the first half were limited to a handful.
The idea to use both the wings and use our overlapping wingers to put the ball into the box seemed to be the idea to break the compact formation Pune City FC deployed but it created few chances as both teams looked to organize their shape before opening out to attack.
We created a few chances but ended up playing a pass too many in the box as the chances were not capitalized with both teams going into the break locked at 0-0.
Back in the second half, the boys broke the deadlock early into the game as Rowllin Borges followed a through ball from Ogbeche as the keeper came out to collect it. With pressure from Rowllin, the FC Pune City keeper, Kamaljit, failed to collect the ball cleanly and Rowllin did the needful to slot the loose ball to give us an all-important 1-0 lead in the 47th minute.
The game did not turn out to be an extravagant one, as both teams tried to break their opponents shape with neither willing to give their opponents any room to wiggle through.
With a goal advantage, the Highlanders started to look comfortable on the ball and spread the play nicely and created a flurry of chances. Gallego found himself in a brilliant shooting position after playing a quick one-two with Ogbeche but decided to cross the ball instead of taking a shot at the goal yielding an easy clearance from the defenders.
In the first 15 minutes in the second half, the Highlanders found their fluidity and creativity as Pana Triadis and Gallego orchestrated some brilliant moves to open up chances along with Puitea's all-around industrial work-rate as we looked good to enhance our lead.
But it was the visitors who stunned the raucous home crowd into silence in the 69th minute after Adil Khan connected a volley from Diego Carlos's cross to level the scores.
FC Pune City looked threatening on the break as Pawan Kumar was called into action to pull off a brilliant save from a looping ball coming over his shoulder after Ashique Kuruniyan's shot was deflected off Regan Singh's legs.
NEUFC survived another scare in the 80th minute after Ian Hune found himself in space after Leudo's headed clearance from a long throw-in fell to him at the far post. Hume took a powerful shot at the goal, but the ball crashed at the underside of the crossbar and came out to be eventually cleared out of danger by an alert Mato Grgic.
The Highlanders frustration stemmed not only from their opponents’ resilient and organized defending, it was self-inflicted too. Ogbeche squandered a gilt-edged chance to change the complexion of the top 4 playoff teams and Eelco lamented the succession of poor final balls that offered FC Pune City respite.
In order to secure a point and consolidate our backline and to open up attacking channels through direct vertical football, Coach Eelco made three changes bringing in Janeiler Rivas, Redeem Tlang and Juan Mascia deep into the game.
With Pana Triadis and Gallego substituted, the Highlanders lacked creativity in the final few minutes, which allowed the visitors more time on the ball.
We were patient, intelligent, but conservative in possession, a consequence of both Pune's pressing and their own contentment with a 1-1 stalemate. Our performance was increasingly safety-conscious the longer the stalemate remained, though inviting the visitors to push forward in numbers was not without its risks.
A rush of blood and moment of indecision in the 88th minute saw Jose Leudo receive a direct red card for an off the ball incident. A night of frustration and accumulation of woes saw Mato Grgic pick up his fourth yellow card of the season and is set to miss the next away game against Kerala Blasters.
With 2 points dropped and we set to lose two key players in the form of Mato Grgic and Jose Leudo, we face a monumental battle as they take on Kerala Blasters next on the 1st of March to secure our playoff spot for the first time in our club’s history.
With 28 points from 17 games, the Highlanders are placed third on the table, as the battle for playoff heats up and is expected to go right down the wire.
NorthEast United FC 1
47’ Rowllin Borges
FC Pune City 1
69’ Adil Khan