NorthEast United boosts playoff hopes with a 2-0 win against Kerala Blasters

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Nestor Albiach broke the deadlock in this match

In the fourth fixture of Matchday 21 of the 2023-24 Indian Super League season, NorthEast United defeated Kerala Blasters by a 2-0 margin in Guwahati’s Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium with Nestor Albiach and Jithin MS getting on the scoresheet for the Highlanders.

Kerala Blasters head coach Ivan Vukomanovic made wholesale changes to the team that lost 2-4 against East Bengal. Lara Sharma, Saurav Mandal, Pritam Kotal, Milos Drincic, Mohammed Azhar, Danish Farooq, Freddy Lallawmawma, Mohammed Aimen, Ishan Pandita, and Nihal Sudeesh replaced Karanjit Singh, Sandeep Singh, Ruivah Hormipam, Marko Leskovic, Naocha Singh, Rahul KP, Vibin Mohanan, Jeakson Singh, Fedor Cernych, and Dimitrios Diamantakos respectively.

On the other hand, NorthEast United head coach Juan Pedro Benali made two changes to the team that was handed a 1-4 drubbing by Mumbai City. Hamza Regrarui got into the starting XI in Louis Nickson Macarton’s place, while Phalguni Singh had to make way for Manvir Singh.

Although the Tuskers were playing a second-string lineup, they had the first chance of the game in the 11th minute. Aimen superbly beat his marker Dinesh Singh and then got past Mohammed Ali Bemammer as well but his shot was saved by Gurmeet Singh.

In the 21st minute, NorthEast United almost got the opening goal of the match when a defense-splitting ball from the middle by Nestor Albiach caught the Kerala Blasters’ defense napping as Manvir was in acres of space and he even went around Lara but Azhar made a timely clearance.

The next big chance for the Highlanders came three minutes later. Jithin darted down the right flank and struck a shot, which was blocked by a Blasters’ defender. The ball then fell kindly for Manvir, whose shot was blocked too and reached Redeem Tlang, who did get it into the back of the net but the goal was ruled out for off-side.

Chances kept on pouring for Benali’s team, but his attackers were not clinical enough to pounce on those. In the 26th minute, Manvir found himself unmarked again, this time from a Buanthanglun Samte cross, but had his shot saved by Lara.

The next few minutes flew past quietly but NorthEast United had the ball in the back of the net once again in the 44th minute. Samte played out a cross which was headed by Nestor, and both Lara and Manvir went to meet it. The Kerala Blasters goalkeeper ended up spilling it and Hamza Regragui was in close quarters to tuck it home, but this goal was chalked off too, for a foul on Lara.

The Tuskers did have a few opportunities in the dying stages of the first half. Ishan Pandita put on the afterburners and went past a sea of players in red before nearly finding him through on goal, but Gurmeet made a timely clearance. A Daisuke Sakai corner found Farooq, but the midfielder could not keep his header on target.

The second half was a lot quieter than the first, as the first 35 minutes produced nothing more than half-chances. The first big chance of the half came to the Highlanders in the 81st minute when Phalguni made a sprint down the right wing and put in a dangerous cross which was cleared away by Saurav. The rebound fell for Macarton but his shot was blocked as well by Saurav.

Kerala Blasters finally had to concede in the 84th minute of the match as NorthEast United took the important lead. A counter-attack saw Michel Zabaco finding Nestor, who outpaced his marker Drincic before chipping the ball over Lara in a sublime fashion.

Jithin MS struck the last nail in Kerala Blasters’ coffin

The second goal nearly came in the 90th minute but Lara proved he is ready for the big stage and can give competition to Karanjit Singh. From another counter-attack, Romain Philippoteaux found Bemammer, who played the ball to Nestor. The Spaniard had his first shot saved by Lara, but when the ball fell back to him, he struck it straight at the goalkeeper.

NorthEast United did not have to wait long for their second goal though, as it came in the 91st minute. Philippoteaux had a role to play again as he found Phalguni with a pass, who then beat his marker Aritra Das with trickery before finding Jithin inside the box. The latter deserves credit for the way he outfoxed Kotal with his positioning and for placing the ball past Lara.

With this victory, NorthEast United has climbed to the 7th place in the standings with 23 points in 20 matches. They will now take on Chennaiyin on 9th April in a crucial fixture for both sides whereas Kerala Blasters, who remain 5th with 30 points from 21 matches, will face off against Hyderabad on 12th April in a dead rubber encounter.