For 68 minutes on Wednesday, NorthEast United made it really difficult for FC Goa to make an impact on the game at the Fatorda Stadium.
Granted, the Highlanders weren't much of a threat in their attacking third and let Goa have the lion's share of possession but the Gaurs were frustrated to the core. In the end, the final scoreline read 2-0 but it wasn't smooth-sailing for the league leaders.
Robert Jarni's defence-first approach with an intent to hit teams on the counter using pace has been easily found out by the opposition teams after the initial wave of success. Similar to last season's approach, they tend to use their full-backs and wingers to good effect departures and injuries have once again struck them down.
The Highlanders are winless in six games. And the last two outings have been ineffective displays, especially when it comes to their attacking third output. Against FC Goa, the organized defensive setup despite the absence of Kai Heerings at the back and suspended Subhasish Roy in between the sticks helped tie the Gaurs frontline down. However, as has been the norm so far this season for Jarni's men, they once again erred at a crucial juncture.
A straightforward cross by Jackichand Singh that appeared to be harmless was unintentionally deflected towards his own goalkeeper by Mislav Komorski in the 68th minute. Pawan Kumar, who replaced Roy Choudhury in goal, made a mess of a routine save and let the ball roll into the net to give Goa the advantage.
From there on, it suited Goa's possession-based football and NorthEast stood no chance. The visitors frontline did not even bother to press the Gaurs high up the field and yet, one quick long ball in behind the backline caught the defence unaware and allowed Ferran Corominas to run through on goal.
When a player like Corominas gets free on goal, defenders are firmly on their backfoot. Jose Leudo picked up a red card for his last-man foul and the serial goal-getter matched Roy Krishna's tally of eight goals this season.
NorthEast had no way to source a chance other than Federico Gallego. He wasn't deemed fit to last 90 minutes and was taken off. Panagiotis Triadis left the club after his contract ended, Macimilano Barreiro was replaced to facilitate Gallego's return and their marquee signing Asamoah Gyan was ruled out for the season due to an injury. It was no real surprise to see NorthEast struggle for creativity.
With the fourth spot the only playoff spot truly up for grabs, the now-open January transfer window is going to be a crucial period in NorthEast United's season. If they win a game in hand, they'd only be two points away from the last playoff spot. All is not lost but they need to restructure their roster.