NorthEast United’s late equaliser spoiled ATK Mohun Bagan’s first leg party

ATK Mohun Bagan head coach Antonio Habas said his team did not concede too many opportunities to NorthEast United

The curse of the first leg continued to haunt head coach Antonio Habas as his team ATK Mohun Bagan failed to pick up a victory in the 2020-21 ISL semi-final tie against NorthEast United on Saturday. 

Habas is yet to taste victory in the first leg of the playoffs, having drawn and lost two games each so far in the history of the ISL. But it must be noted that on two out of the three previous occasions, his teams managed to come back in the second leg, progress to the final and lift the ISL trophy. 

This time around, the contest against NorthEast United was thrown away right at the end. David Williams scored in the 34th minute of the game to put his team into the lead. That one-goal lead was the cue for the best defence in the league this season to tighten up at the back and prepare to survive a second-half onslaught. 

While there was no onslaught on display after the break, after a sustained period of pressure, the Highlanders finally managed to breach the Bagan defence in added time. Substitute Idrissa Sylla, who played the ball to Luis Machado on the right flank, timed a good run to the centre of the box to head the Portuguese winger’s cross into the net.

The defence that had stood firm for most of the game, fell apart with just one accurate cross and a good run into the box and that was all that Khalid Jamil needed. The Highlanders are now unbeaten for 11 consecutive matches this season and Jamil. since taking over the club in January, is yet to taste defeat. 

The match got off to a cagey start and both teams remained cautious about not leaving space behind for the forwards to attack. There were no surprises in the Bagan lineup but Jamil opted to tinker with his team.

The impressive Ashutosh Mehta was fielded as a right-winger in the first half, with Nim Dorjee occupying his usual right-back slot and VP Suhair being deployed as the striker. With Deshorn Brown out due to an injury, it was ultimately Sylla, who was also not fully fit, who came on in the second half got the job done for the Highlanders. 

The Bagan defence was able to deal with whatever the Highlanders threw at them for most of the game. There was also no worries for Benjamin Lambot and co. to deal with the other end of the field. Such was the tempo of the game.

While clear-cut chances were few and far between, Ashutosh Mehta was involved in a big chance for NorthEast United at the stroke of half-time when he headed a Fedrico Gallego free-kick onto the crossbar. The tempo of the game would have shifted had that gone in but it was not to be. 

NorthEast United ATK Mohun Bagan

Bagan’s defence-first approach has yielded results this season so there is no reason for Habas to set his team up differently for the second leg. Roy Krishna, who averages 4.85 touches per game inside the opposition box this season, managed just three such touches against the Highlanders. Both teams will need to step up their game in the final third if they are to get a favourable result in the second leg without going into a penalty shootout.

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