Passion, emotions, drama, sweat, controversy and a come-back – the game had everything one would ask in a thrilling encounter in football. Entertainment is always assured when these two sides face-off and this match surely did not disappoint football fans. Going behind in the first half by two goals, the Highlanders did climb the mountain to grab a point and move to the top of the table. ISL has two trajectories going in the opposite directions- the quality of football being played going up and the quality of referring certainly going down; as another horrendous display by the referees stained the pretty pictures painted by the legs of the artists. Let’s dissect, what is arguably the best game of this season so far.
It was game 7 in season 7, and the two teams locked horns in Bambolin after having opposite results in their first games by the same score-line. North East United FC won after a disciplined performance against the Islanders; but the Kerala Blasters were defeated by ATK Mohun Bagan. Highlanders have been victorious over the Blasters only on three occasions in the ISL but were undefeated in the previous four meetings and the ‘away’ team was looking for a victory to celebrate their hundredth game in the ISL.
Gerard Nus fielded his men with a 4-3-3 formation that often took the shape of a 4-4-1-1 on the pitch. With Appiah leading the attack and Gallego played as the number 10 - as he was given the responsibility to be the creative force. The new starter Rakesh Pradhan and the impressive Ninthoi made runs on the wings, as Camara and Lalengmawia controlled the mid-field. The back-line was unchanged after their brilliant performance in the first game, as Fox and Lambot were the centre-back duo.
Vicuna deployed the Kerala squad with a 4-1-4-1 formation. Vicuna learnt from his previous match, as he was quick to make some changes in the starting line-up. As former Highlanders Lalthathang Khawlhring and Seityasen Singh started the game wide, and Gomez, Cidoncha and R. Kumar played at the centre of the park. The Englishman Hooper was the striker, as Kone and Nhamoinesu were on duty to protect the goal. Nishu Kumar, also made a good start for the Blasters.
The game started as an end to end game of football, and it promised goals. But the tide turned in favor of Kerala as Cidoncha headed an exquisite goal, capitalizing on the set-piece by Seityesen Singh. No goal-keeper would have saved that but certainly the marking on the box would have been interrogated in the dressing room. There was nothing much for the Highlanders till the cooling-break, as the crosses and passes were not met by offensive forces. On the 23rd minute of the game, the North East defence was caught off guard after an unlikely loose pass from Camara; but the “blooper from Hooper” as he missed a sitter from a position where it was a lot more difficult to miss, kept the score at 1-0.
The cooling break was definitely used as a tactical break as the team looked much more dangerous in the attacking half. As the silky skills from Ninthoi or the defence breaking passes from Gallego and Camara destabilized the Kerala defence but the score remained 1-0.
But the controversial moment of the match came moments before the end of first half. After two brilliant clearances by Fox, Pradhan clearly got the ball when he made a challenge on Puitea. The direction of the ball was crystal clear evidence that it was not a foul, if only the referee would not have been napping. Hopper made no mistake this time as he converted the chance. 2-0 at half-time, and not a fair reflection of the half.
The Highlanders started the game with more intensity in the second half and was rewarded in the 51st minute. Appiah was at the right place at the right time as the wonderful delivery from Gallego ended up at the back of the net. The deficit reduced and the Highlanders hunted for the equalizer. After another shocking mistake by the referee, the team was denied a penalty. But moments later, was awarded one but Appiah shot it over the cross-bar.
Machado and Sylla came in for the Highlanders and provided some much needed freshness. The team kept knocking on the door as they ended the game with 13 shots. Sylla headed the ball wide in the 83rd minute. The stage was set for a nail-biting injury time as the Highlanders pushed with all their might. As all the Highlanders were at the edge of their seats, Sylla scored a possible ‘goal of the season’ after an exquisite and a delicate first touch. As the two teams ended the game in a two all draw, the game of football was victorious in Bambolin.
Dylan Fox, the hungriest man on the pitch, was the MOTM as he was at end of everything, an all-round performance and his leadership at the back kept everyone on their toes. The shape of the team was maintained as the team still has not conceded from open-play. As some marking decisions could be questioned, the fighting spirit was unquestionable. Nus and every Highlander is, “f**king proud the team”. The Highlanders will be trying to replicate the performance as they will lock horns with the Gaurs on the 30th of November.