NorthEast United holds Kerala Blasters for a 1-1 draw
A spirited NorthEast United side forced Kerala Blasters to share a valuable point after holding the southern heavyweights by 1-1 at Kochi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in the second clash of the double-header Saturday.
To the surprise of a packed Manjappada crowd, a 12th-minute strike from Nestor Albiach brought the Highlanders to the commanding position. The Tuskers eventually equalized it through Danish Farooq’s headed goal in the 49th minute but failed to score one more to keep their winning streak at home alive in the 2023-24 Indian Super League.
The stand-in Kerala gaffer Frank Dauwen was forced to make four changes in his lineup from their most recent ISL appearance due to injuries and suspensions.
Aiban Dohling, Prabir Das, and Jeakson Singh missed the action entirely while Mohammed Aimen was benched by the stand-in head coach. The Manipuri left-back defender Naocha Singh Huidrom made his league debut in the yellow colors of the Tuskers in an all-Indian defense comprising Sandeep Singh, Hormipam Ruivah, Pritam Kotal, and Naocha. Dimitri Diamantakos was brought into the starting XI to lead the line for the Blasters.
The visitors from the highlands of Northeast India also made two changes to the Starting XI leading to leaving out their club captain Romain Philippoteaux on the bench in favor of Palestinian skipper Yaser Hamed.
The Spanish central defender Michel Zabaco stepped up for the leadership responsibilities while local boy Jithin MS was preferred over Manvir Singh on the wings.
Diamantakos took the first kick of the match representing the home side in traditional Yellow and Blue colors. NorthEast United started attacking from left to right in front of a packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium of Kochi donning All-White kits.
In the very first minute, the Greek striker Diamantakos charged towards the opposition keeper with a high press and despite the initial struggle, Mirshad Michu somehow managed to daunt the early threat.
The Highlanders spent the initial minutes of the game defending the goal only and did not get much success in keeping the ball possession. After taking a while to settle down, they finally started making progressive runs from the 10th minute onwards and succeeded in their very first attempt.
The failure of the Tuskers’ defensive unit to clear the threat in the final third allowed the Thrissur-born winger Jithin to barge into the box with the ball. Upon receiving the ball from his teammate, Nestor Albiach outwitted the duo of Hormipam Ruivah and Pritam Kotal to aim the arrow at the target and Sachin Suresh was unable to turn down the 12th-minute strike from the Spanish forward which ultimately broke the deadlock for the visitors.
However, the opening goal had no effect on the high spirits of the Blasters as they continued to play an attacking style of football despite trailing by the scoreline of 0-1. Kwame Peprah came very close to netting the equalizing strike multiple times and almost earned a penalty kick for his side in the 25th minute.
Hamed who brought down his Ghanian counterpart inside the danger zone and the referee’s decision to not penalize the challenge received a lot of criticism from the home crowd.
The intensity and end-to-end style of the game continued when both teams returned to the battlefield after a half-time break. Juan Pedro Benali must have instructed his knights to slow down and protect the lead while the Yellow and Blues kept their approach aggressive in search of the equalizer.
Albiach once again succeeded in finding the back of the net in the 48th minute with a header but his attempt was later ruled offside by the assistant referee. This turn of events issued an alarm to the hosts as the visitors’ lead was on the verge of getting doubled at the start of the second half.
The Kerala skipper Adrian Luna and his boys reacted to the threat quickly and it took less than a minute for the Kochi-based outfit to finally score the goal. Luna initiated the breakthrough move with a free-kick from a hefty distance and accurately found the charging Danish Farooq who clinically headed it inside the net.
It took only a subtle head-contact for the Kashmiri central midfielder to bring the scoreline even as he celebrated his third league goal for the Tuskers in style.
In the final phase of the game, Ishan Pandita who replaced Diamantakos at the front got a few golden opportunities to turn his substitute appearance into a decisive cameo but the Indian forward could not convert them into favorable results.
The fans witnessed diligent efforts from both sides to get away with the winning goal but none of them could succeed and the final scoreline remained 1-1 at the full-time.
The Tuskers will extend their stay in the city of Kochi for another week in order to guard their fortress from eastern invaders Odisha. Meanwhile, the Highlanders are also set to play a home league fixture after almost a month as they will be taking on Jamshedpur on Thursday in Guwahati.