Phalguni Singh’s strike helps NorthEast United seal a semi-final place

NorthEast United will face either East Bengal or Gokulam Kerala in the semi-final

NorthEast United became the first team to qualify for the semi-final of the 2023 Durand Cup, as they handed the Indian Army a 1-0 defeat here at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium on Thursday with Phalguni Singh scoring the decisive goal.

NorthEast United head coach Juan Pedro Benali named a strong starting XI, though he chose not to use all of his foreigners. Miguel Zabaco, Romain Philippoteaux and Ibson Melo were handed starts, while Mohammed Ali Bemammer and Nestor Albiach could only get a place on the bench.

On the other hand, Indian Army head coach L Anthony Ramesh made a couple of tweaks to his team. As opposed to Sayad Bin Abdul Kadir, Bhabindra Malla Thakuri was preferred under the sticks, while Tamil Nadu forward Alwin also got a place in the starting XI.

The game had a cagey start, as both teams struggled to find any momentum at all. Indian Army defender Shafeel PP made a run into the opposition box before taking a shot in the 10th minute, but his attempt was not on target.

The first major chance arrived four minutes later for the Highlanders. New arrival Melo laid a beautiful pass for Philippoteaux, whose shot nearly produced the opening goal, but struck the woodwork instead.

The next chance arrived in the 25th minute when Benali’s team won a free-kick in a dangerous position. Philippoteaux’s delivery found Zabaco, who headed it for Rochharzela. However, the winger’s shot was nowhere near on target.

For Army, the first big chance came in the 36th minute of the game. A ball from the deep found midfielder Samir Murmu in space, who then did well to launch a powerful attempt. Unfortunately for him, Mirshad Michu was alert and active for the Highlanders.

NorthEast United dominated possession and was nearly gifted a goal just before half-time. In an attempt to catch a floated free-kick which was completely harmless, Bhabindra made a mess that could have been costly, had any of Benali’s players been alert to the opportunity.

Although, that was not the last chance of the first half. In the additional time, a cross from the flank found Murmu unmarked, and while the youngster from Bihar deserved credit for his first attempt, he is to be blamed for missing this gilt-edged chance.

Phalguni Singh scored the only goal of the match

With the Army defense proving to be resolute, Benali introduced Spaniard Albiach in the second half and the move paid off instantly. In the 56th minute, the former Sparta Prague striker’s delightful corner found Manvir Singh in space, who chose to lay off a header for Phalguni, before the latter struck his attempt past a helpless Bhabindra.

Indian Army did not go down without a fight, as just eight minutes after going down, they had the chance of restoring parity in the match. A through ball found Murmu in a dangerous position yet again, but for the second time on the night, the youngster could not keep his shot on target from close range.

The next few minutes saw the balance of the game swinging in NorthEast United’s favour once again, with the likes of Manvir and Jithin MS causing Ramesh’s defenders plenty of problems.

However, Army could easily have found a way back into the game in the 80th minute. As Bhabindra did in the first half, Mirshad made a mess of what should have been a comfortable catch of a cross, but Benali’s defenders reacted to the occasion before any of the Army attackers could make a move.

The list of wasted opportunities kept on increasing, as the Army side missed two major opportunities in the next six minutes. Firstly, a header went wide of the goal, whereas in the 86th minute, Meghalayan forward Bikash Thapa struck a shot on target, but it was directed straight at Mirshad.

The last chance for Ramesh’s team came in the third minute of additional time when Suresh Meitei delivered a dangerous cross into the box. Thankfully for the Highlanders, Mirshad made a strong clearance.

With this win, NorthEast United have booked their place in the first semi-final, which will be played in Kolkata’s Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan on Tuesday. The Highlanders will be up against the winners of the second quarter-final between East Bengal and Gokulam Kerala.