NorthEast United booked an Indian Super League (ISL) playoff ticket against Bengaluru following a goal-less stalemate against Kerala Blasters on Friday but Eelco Schattorie and his men will have to do without the services of defender Gurwinder Singh in the first-leg.
The central defender was sent off in the 23rd minute of the clash at Kochi but NorthEast assistant coach Shaun Ontong remains confident about the team’s chances in the playoff. “Gurwinder getting suspended is something that we will have to assess, but otherwise nothing really that affects our plans for the playoffs,” Ontong stated.
The red-card for Gurwinder came under controversial circumstances at the edge of the Kerala box after the defender was adjudged to have brought down Matej Poplatnik.
Looking back at the sending off, Ontong said, “It started from the counter, we weren't set up properly. Gurwinder had to make a decision. In the first look, it looks like he caught him late.”
The Australian coach was delighted with the display of defender Colombian defender Janeiler Rivas who made his first ISL start on Friday.
“The new foreigner has come in and done a really good job,” remarked Ontong.
The visitors had to sacrifice young forward Girik Khosla in the wake of Gurwinder’s red card with midfielder Fanai Lalrempuia being brought on in his stead. Ontong took confidence from his side’s defensive resolve despite them having to play with a man less for more than an hour at Kochi.
“We started the game in a different formation. Unfortunately, we had to make a change given the red card. We are so proud of the performance today, I thought we were outstanding. The effort was what gave us the point, we stayed organized and compact,” Ontong explained.
NorthEast opted to rest their top-scorer Bartholomew Ogbeche for the clash and Ontong was at pains to explain that his men were not overly reliant on the Nigerian striker.
“It's not like we are not trying. Every player is giving their all. We back every player who is getting a chance. This is part of football, we have full confidence,” he said.
One of the men to thank for NorthEast’s clean sheet on Friday was goalkeeper Pawan Kumar who had to be substituted in the second half due to an injury.
“At the moment, he looks like he cut his eye but it is too early to say anything,” Ontong said about the custodian’s injury status.
NorthEast will play the first-leg of the playoff tie against Bengaluru at home in Guwahati on March 7.