Who thought the Highlanders would start the season with a victory over the Islanders? The prodigal coach Gerard Nus planned, the players executed it to perfection and the Highlanders believed. The young guns, with an impressive disciplined performance, have surely caught everyone by surprise as they had pulled together a massive upset for the heavyweights Mumbai City FC. Let’s dissect how the ‘home’ team perfected the art of managing the beautiful game. Coming into the game, the odds were against the Highlanders. But North East United FC had a clear game plan and had answers for every quiz thrown at them by Lobera’s side. Kwesi Appiah converted from the penalty spot to hand over his team the valuable three points. The red card for Ahmed Jahouh was clearly a defining moment of the game as the 10 men Mumbai City FC struggled to replicate their dominating first half performance in the second half, and their lack of sharpness in the final third was not enough at last to match the well marshaled squad of the Highlanders.
Sergio Lobera fielded the squad with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Ogbeche playing as the striker and Fondre playing on the right looking to cut into the box. Hernan Santana and Sarthak Golui played as central defenders while Fall was on the bench owing to lack of preparation time after the quarantine. Ahmed Jahouh and Rowllin Borges played deep in the mid-field and Hugo Boumous was given the freedom by the coach to pull the strings together by connecting the mid-field and attack. Gerard Nus deployed his men in a 4-3-3 formation with Appiah playing in the middle of the front three with Meetei and Machado on the wings. Camara, the best man on the pitch, played at the heart of the mid-field orchestrating the game; the young Lalengmawia also had a great game in the middle of the park. The solid back line was formed by the towering duo of Fox and Lambot; while Ashutosh Mehta and Gurjinder Kumar played on either side of the central defenders. Mumbai City FC started the game on the front foot. They dominated the possession, were looking dangerous going forward and the passes were sticking right. Ahmed Jahouh was all over the field and with Borges, controlled the tempo of the game. The best chance of the first half also came their way, when a free header by Ogbeche flew over the cross bar. But Mumbai City FC failed to convert their chances. Credits to North East for maintaining their shape and formation and the solid defence denied Mumbai of any space. The game-changing moment came just two minutes before the second half as Jahouh was given marching orders off the field after a clumsy challenge on Camara. Jahouh came sliding in showing his studs, not in control of his body and caught Camara after the ball was gone. Debates about the force of the impact but clearly a dangerous tackle and a clear and straight Red card!
Borges still has not stopped contributing for his former team as the ball struck his hand inside the 18-yard box and awarded North East a penalty. Kwesi Appiah took the responsibility on his shoulder and with a calm and composed penalty sent Amrinder Singh on the wrong side, and converting from the spot. North East United FC started the second half with more intensity and were duely rewarded.
It was a game of two halves and North East was the better side in the second half as they dominated the game, fully exploited their advantage of an extra man of the field. NEUFC maintained their calm and composed structure and Mumbai’s body language was certainly not positive to make a comeback. Lobera’s side created only half chances and questions will be raised about the tactical side of playing two strikers with one of them forced to play on the wing. Federico Gallego, Idrissa Sylla and Britto PM came from the bench to provide more sharpness in the attacking end of the field for NEUFC.
It is a rare sight in ISL to see Sergio Lobera’s side with no shots on target. But what a way for Gerard Nus to start his managerial career in India with an impressive team performance. In the hot and humid night in Vasco, Nus would be happier of the two coaches as his solid game plan was sprinkled with some silky skills by his lads. With a pragmatic first half that conceded possession to Mumbai (66% overall), the well drilled North-East United proved a point last night.
The Islanders outmuscled the Highlanders financially and on paper. But North East United FC came on top as they proved the ‘pundits’ wrong. The Highlanders will be over the moon as it is their team’s first victory in over a year. The team will certainly be more confident heading into their next game against Kerala Blasters. The team will certainly look to display their impressive team performance with the same spirit and attitude and add another three points to their tally.