Facing Kerala Blasters in our last league stage game, the apparent dead-rubber was all about leapfrogging Mumbai City FC in the league table, but an early red card (24th minute) saw our game plan disturbed as we salvaged a goalless draw in a physically daunting game. With hot and humid conditions prevailing in Kochi and the energy of the players sapping, the Highlanders pulled off a heroic show to battle close to 70 minutes with 10-men to finish our last game of the group stage 0-0 at Kochi on Friday.
Having secured our playoff tickets earlier, meant it allowed the Coach to test the bench strength and preserve some of the players who were close to suspensions due to accumulated yellow cards and go into the game in a much-relaxed frame of mind despite the injury and suspension concerns.
A revamped playing XI saw the likes to Girik Khosla making his debut as the young Indian striker started up-front to pair up with Juan Mascia. Shouvik Ghosh was also handed his first start this season as key players were rested ahead of the semi-final double headers.
With a 4-4-2 formation, our initial build-up saw Puitea playing freely in his usual holding midfielder role and displayed excellent vision and distribution to control the game from the center of the pitch partnering with Fedrico Gallego.
Early into the first half, Puitea threaded a beautiful pass to an overlapping Shouvik Ghosh down the left, his measured cross had the Blasters backline in trouble but eventually managed to avoid the danger.
For the hosts, the first real threat came from Courage Pekuson who found himself in a nice shooting position from Poplantik’s pass but the powerful grounder missed the target narrowly.
In the 24th minute, Kerala broke into a swift counter-attack from a poorly taken corner and the lone man at the back, Gurwinder, was forced to slide in a tackle in an attempt to stop Matej Poplantik. The Slovenian attacker knew the tackle was coming and went down on the edge of the box with minimum contact forcing the referee to show Gurwinder a direct red card bringing us down to 10-men and giving Kerala a numerical advantage for the rest of the match.
The suspension forced our coach to bring in Lalrempuia Fanai, another player to have his first start of the season, for Girik as Rowllin was forced into a right-back slot as we switched to a compact 4-4-1 formation, with Juan Mascia playing as a lone striker upfront.
With the numerical advantage Kerala had, pressure started building on us under the sapping conditions as the players were forced to cover all the extra yards. In the 34th minute, Pekuson came close to scoring with an intelligent cutback as his shot crashed with the post giving us a respite from going a goal down.
With Mizoram basking in the joyous occasion of Chapchar Kut, our two young Mizo midfielders Puia and Puitea started to spread joy in the midfield with a brilliant combination of play exchanging sleek passes, uniting like two long lost souls building attacks and transition for us as we looked to gain control of the game.
On the brink of half time, Lane Doungel found himself in an advantageous position after threaded in by Pekuson. But goalkeeper Pawan Kumar came rushing out in time to pull off a brilliant save to deny the former Highlander as we went into the break with the scoreline unchanged.
Back in the second half, we had our chances to pull off a cheeky goal, none better than, Pana driving forward a beautiful run down the left and curled in a pinpoint cross to Larempuia Fanai in the box, but his attempted shot went straight to the keeper to squander a glorious opportunity to poach a lead into the game.
Keeper Pawan Kumar was on top of his game and was called into action once again as he pulled off a double save from Poplantik from point-blank range to keep us in the game as the match clock ticked on under testing physical conditions.
In the 69th minute, Pawan Kumar pulled off astonishing diving save to deny Poplantik’s long ranger shot that deflected off Shouvik to keep the scores level but was soon substituted due to an eye injury that saw Gurmeet Singh making his debut.
With the Highlanders displaying a valiant display as they have done throughout the season to hold their fort, we came out unscathed with 1 point to hold Kerala Blasters to a goalless draw as we finished fourth on the league table with 29-points.
A great show of fight and resolve under battling conditions by our young players where the boys showed their combative spirit once again as we have done throughout the season to finish our last game of the league phase.
We will now be hosting Bengaluru FC in the first leg of their semi-final play-off match in Guwahati on 7th March 2019 to set the battle drums ringing as we start to mount our title challenge in a few days.
Kerala Blasters FC 0
NorthEast United 0