NorthEast United wasted a chance to register a win and send out a statement of intent in the race for the top-four after a hard-fought encounter against Chennaiyin FC on Thursday.
The match, which Chennaiyin nearly won, ended as a 3-3 draw with Luis Machado scoring an injury-time penalty to save the Highlanders' blushes but in hindsight, it could prove to be a crucial point in the team's campaign.
It was an energetic start to the game and although Chennaiyin were already out of the playoff race, they truly put up a fight and played for their pride. Lallianzuala Chhangte, who ended the game with a brace, was their star on the night and his finishing and runs were top-notch and would have left head coach Csaba Laszlo wondering how Chennaiyin kept missing chances throughout the season.
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NorthEast United, with their eyes on a spot in the playoffs with more than a couple of teams waiting to pounce on any slip-up, had no plans to sit back and absorb pressure after Chhangte had opened the scoring. Their response was typical of the fight they have displayed under Khalid Jamil and they turned around the tie in no time. First, Imran Khan found the net from close-range off a Luis Machado cross to level the scores.
Khalid Jamil missed Federico Gallego and his creative spark in the final third due to a niggle but the midfield remained tidy due to the work rate of Khassa Camara who was always the first to react to loose balls and launch attacks when such opportunities were present.
Such an attack following a period of pressure from Chennaiyin ended up with Khassa Camara finding Deshorn Brown with a long ball over the defence. The move reached one end to another in no time and Brown, who easily brushed Enes Sipovic aside with his upper-body strength, beat the keeper with a ferocious strike to give the Highlanders a 2-1 lead at the break.
But as we have always witnessed, Chennaiyin are a side that always poses a threat in attack. It was then the Machans' stage to pull off a comeback. Right-back Ashutosh Mehta had a torrid and forgettable outing on the flanks against the pace and skillset of Chhangte and brought the winger down to concede a penalty minutes into the second half. He was also at fault for leaving Chhante free inside the box to score the opening goal.
After Lanzarote converted from the spot, Chhangte himself got on the scoresheet for his second goal of the night when he beat the keeper with a deflected strike after collecting Edwin's pass from the midfield.
A point is always better than having nothing to a show for after full-time. Vishal Kaith, who had a brilliant game under the bar, fouled Idrissa Sylla and conceded a penalty which Machado stepped up and converted. A point also meant that there are three teams on 27 points which means if they all have the same tally at the end of the league stage, Hyderabad and FC Goa will go through to the knockout rounds due to their superiority in the mini-group that will be considered. A draw is a draw but the Highlanders may have complicated matters for themselves.
For Chennaiyin it was yet another night of disappointment as Csaba Laszlo's side once again conceded late and dropped points. This was the club's 10th draw this season out of the 19 matches they have played so far.
Chennaiyin biggest issue this season was scoring goals as they had scored just 13 goals before the tie against NorthEast United. However, scoring wasn't a problem for them against the Highlanders but poor errors at the back allowed Highlanders to pick up a point.
It is one of those seasons when nothing goes right for a team despite all their hard work on the pitch. Until Thursday's match it was Chennaiyin'ss attack that was letting them down. But on the day when the attack fired, the defence gave out.