They were up against a full-strength Bengaluru side, one that had finished at the top of the table for the second consecutive season. Carles Cuadrat would have hoped that his team can pack a punch against a team against whom they have never lost.
However, it was a
Redeem Tlang was afforded space and time on the ball on the right flank early on and after going close a couple of times, the winger drew first blood in the 20th minute. The way he was allowed to be picked out by Ogbeche and the manner in which the Indian winger cut inside and set himself up for a shot showed the Bengaluru defence in poor light. Nishu Kumar could also have done better defensively as a beautiful strike hit the top corner.
The wave of attacks by NorthEast United continued and Bengaluru
Gurwinder Singh's absence meant Mato Grgic and Janeiler Rivas teamed up at centre-back. While the defence did a commendable job of shutting down the Bengaluru attack, goalkeeper Pawan Kumar kept finding new ways to spill the ball from shots and crosses into the box. Luckily, there was no harm done.
It was telling that Bengaluru's only notable chance in the first half was a long-distance strike by Dimas Delgado and that too was spilt by Pawan Kumar before recovering in time as Miku chased the loose ball inside the box.
It looked like NorthEast United had stamped their authority on the game and anything other than a comfortable NorthEast United win was impossible. However, the hosts were dealt a damaging blow at half-time, one that could change the two-legged semi-final on its head. Two vital cogs in Eelco Schattorie's system, Bartholomew Ogbeche and Rowllin Borges, were forced off due to injuries to their hamstring.
The effects of their departure was visible throughout the second half as the hosts were forced to drop deeper, making life comfortable for Bengaluru. Even then, NorthEast United had chances from turnovers and counter-attacks, which was also an indication of how rusty the Blues were on the night.
Sunil Chhetri, who looked sluggish for the most part, turned up in the 82nd minute to assist Xisco with a cross. The injuries to NorthEast United, which will most likely rule Ogbeche and Borges out of the second leg and the away goal scored by Bengaluru could be decisive in the tie.
Of course, a win is better than a draw any day. The referee rightly spotted an infringement by Harmanjot Khabra who had wrestled down Juan Cruz Mascia inside the box and awarded a penalty in injury time. Mascia duly converted the spotkick.
Eelco Schattorie has struggled to name a regular first team this season, with injuries and suspensions playing the villain's role. While the coach will be happy that they ended the game with a win rather than a draw, injuries to two key players and Bengaluru's away goal are causes for concern.