As Chennaiyin FC clashed with North East United FC at the GMC Stadium, the game was of immense consequence for the Highlanders, whose rise under the guidance of Khalid Jamil has been stellar. North East had the opportunity to climb to the third position in the league standings and more importantly gain a two-point advantage over Hyderabad FC and FC Goa – the other two teams who have a reasonable chance to qualify for the playoffs. On the other hand, for the Marina Machans, this match was for pride with their playoff race over already.
Things did not work out as the Highlanders would have wished for and, with 27 points, they stay put in the fifth position behind the third-placed Hyderabad FC and the fourth-placed FC Goa on goal difference. Things, however, worked out perfectly for the audience as the two teams served them a scintillating six-goal thriller that involved an injury-time equalizer. In the process, they considerably upped the quality of this reverse fixture as their previous clash ended in a dull 0-0 draw on the 13th of December.
Entering into the game, both teams were in contrasting form and frame-of-mind. The Highlanders had been unbeaten for seven games (six of them under Jamil) – a run which involved consecutive victories over big guns like Mumbai FC and ATK Mohun Bagan – whereas Csaba László’s team were winless for seven games.
The ability to score goals had been Chennaiyin’s Achilles heel this season, but it wasn’t an issue in this game as Jakub Sylvestr, after a sequence of intricate one-touch passing with Reagan Singh on the right side of the box, played a precise pass to Lallianzuala Chhangte. The winger had been a live-wire on the left flank ever since the game started and slotted the ball home with a stern strike breaking the deadlock in the eighth minute.
The Highlanders were playing without their midfield-magician, Federico Gallego, and it was the 26-year-old debutant from Manipur, Imran Khan, who was asked to fill the Uruguayan’s boots. Khan repaid the faith that his manager showed in him by equalizing in the 14th minute as he latched on to Luis Machado’s deflected cross with a diving header. In fact, Khan was very impressive and did not look out of place with his delicate passing and his work rate.
Right after the equalizer, in the 16th minute, the Highlanders had the chance to take the lead on the counter, but a combination of Machado’s heavy touch and sharp decision-making by Chennaiyin’s goalkeeper, Vishal Kaith, prevented that from materializing.
As the game progressed in the open, end-to-end manner, both teams regularly created half-chances. Multiple of these chances for the Marina Machans were a result of shaky defending or wayward passing by the NEUFC backline, especially by Benjamin Lambot and Ashutosh Mehta, but Chennaiyin strikers failed to take advantage of that. The closest they came to scoring a second in the first half was in the 36th minute when Subhasish Roy made a mess of a simple cross and the ball slipped out of his hands only to hit the post before it was cleared away.
While on the other side of the pitch, it was Kaith who stopped the Highlanders (at least until the 43rd minute) from going ahead. He made a brilliant double save as he first denied Machado followed by Deshorn Brown from scoring in the 29th minute.
However, the kind of form in which Brown is, a goal from him was inevitable, and it arrived in the 43rd minute. Brown chased down Khassa Camara’s long ball, bullied off Enes Sipovic, and outran Eli Sabia before launching a powerful right-foot shot across Kaith from the right side of the box.
Coming into the second half, the Highlanders began assertively. Suhair Vadakkepeedika almost doubled the lead in the 48th minute with his header, but yet again Kaith empathically came to his side’s rescue and kept them in the game.
In the very next minute, the to-be man of the match, Chhangte, with his quick feet and dazzling trickery, forced Ashutosh to bring him down in the box and won a penalty, which was dispatched with authority by Manuel Lanzarote for the 19th goal in his ISL career
The Marina Machans took the lead and turned the game on its head in the 52nd minute with Chhangte’s deflected shot and the 19th goal of his ISL career. They did what they had failed to do throughout the first half, that is, take advantage of the Highlanders’ loss of possession through faulty passing in their defensive half. This time, Machado was the culprit.
After going ahead, the attacking prowess of László’s team declined, while the Highlanders kept on probing without much luck. In the 73rd minute, Kaith was once again called upon as he parried away Provat Lakra’s firm attempt.
As the game neared its climax, Jamil’s team became more and more desperate to get that equalizer. The fact that they had more to gain from this fixture also meant that they had more to lose, and the events that transpired on the pitch reflected that.
Finally, in the 89th minute, a golden opportunity presented itself to Idrissa Sylla. At the edge of the box, a loose ball rolled in front of him and he sonorously struck it with his left foot, but Kaith, diving to his right, pulled off a colossal save to deny the Guinean.
Chennaiyin FC had won 50% of their games when they opened the scoring, but this was not to be the case as their hero, Vishal Kaith, committed a tragic foul when he brought down Brown and conceded a penalty in the 93rd minute. Machado, who stepped up to take the spot-kick, made no mistake. Thus, what could have been the Marina Machans’ second victory in 2021, was not to be.
In addition to being an extremely entertaining watch, this fixture also beautifully sets up the battle for the remaining two playoff spots between Hyderabad FC, FC Goa, and NEUFC.
The Highlanders will play SC East Bengal and Kerela Blasters respectively in their remaining games. FC Goa go against Bengaluru FC, while Hyderabad FC have to face ATK Mohun Bagan before FC Goa and Hyderabad FC play each other in the massive clash on the last matchday.