"We kept going, going, going."
Gerard Nus Casanova put it perfectly. His NorthEast United trailed for 85 minutes, but by the end of it, they looked the more likely to win all three points. Kerala Blasters had led 2-0 at half time, but the match ended 2-2 thanks to a sublime, and controversial, 90th minute equalizer from Idrissa Sylla.
And it wasn't just that. Throughout the ninety, the narrative kept oscillating between the sublime and the controversial.
The game's opening goal was very much the former, and it came in just the fifth minute. Seityasen Singh swung in a delicious free kick from the right flank, Sergio Cidoncha glanced a perfect header into the top right corner. Kibu Vicuna had made a raft of changes to the XI from the opening day, Seityasen one of the newcomers, star player/what-is-he-really enigma Sahal Abdul Samad dropped from the squad altogether. It seemed to be working.
The other newcomers, Rohit Kumar and Lalthathanga Khawlhring, aka Puitea, were superb in the opening phases. Ditching the staid 4-2-3-1 of the last game, Vicuna went with an attacking 4-3-3, pushing Rohit and Cidoncha closer to striker Gary Hooper, giving them a far more direct approach.
- Indian Super League: Stream LIVE on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
The early goal resulted in NorthEast's plan-A going out the window, and opened the game up. Forced to attack, they strung together some positive moves, but also left gaps in defence - one of those almost resulted in the simplest of goals for the Blasters. A lazy pass from Khassa Camara was intercepted by Hooper, who exchanged a quick one-two with the advanced Cidoncha, before shooting over from five yards, with nothing but net in front of him. It was a terrible miss, but the referee made it up to him with the game's first proper controversial moment.
Defending a corner in his own box, Rakesh Pradhan stuck out a leg from behind to take the ball away from Puitea, who'd set himself up to shoot. He got all of the ball and none of the man. The referee thought the opposite, and Hooper converted, albeit sketchily. A few seconds later, he blew for half-time.
At this point, it would have been understandable if NorthEast had just deflated, but whatever Casanova said in the dressing room during the break seemed to do the trick. They came out a team possessed. Where Kerala had dominated large swathes of play, their midfielders strangling-via-possession, it became more even. NorthEast crunched into tackles, kept running at the full backs, kept winning corners, and just "kept going."
Federico Gallego started influencing the game, the magic in his feet directing play more and more toward the Kerala goal, Ninthoi Meetei and substitute Britto PM ever willing runners down the flank, Kwesi Appiah a constant menace up front.
It was Gallego and a sublime corner that gave NorthEast a way back. He whipped it in with too much pace and curl for a flappy Albino Gomes in the Kerala goal, Appiah bundled it home on the second attempt. Much like the Kerala goal this had been an early goal, scored just six minutes after the restart.
Then came controversial moment no.2. After a steady spell of pressure in which NorthEast pushed Kerala further and further back into their own half, their 4-3-3 slowly becoming a 4-5-1, the referee gave NorthEast a penalty. Lalengmawia fell over after being lightly brushed/breathed on by Jessel Carneiro, and that was that. What do they say about luck balancing itself out?
Appiah, though, hero of the magnificent win against Mumbai, scorer of the first goal here, missed. It was a poor one -- he smashed it high, the ball thudding off the top of the crossbar and into the empty stands at Bambolim. It could have been another one of those moments which derail the momentum of a team. But, as their coach so eloquently noted, they just kept at it. With Kerala tiring, Casanova brought on Sylla to run at them. It was the sub who, in the last minute of regulation time, latched onto a lovely floated ball from deep from Gurjinder Kumar, cushioned it with a gorgeous touch, and absolutely belted it into the top corner. Sublime. He was also plainly offside.
At the end, Vicuna was left frustrated, the three points that would have stood as a remarkably quick validation of his methods and philosophy reduced to one. Casanova on the other hand, was so pumped up, he swore on national television. "I'm f****ing proud of the team. We create more chances than them. We deserved more. But right now, I am just so happy with the fighting spirit." As well he might be. Nobody had given them a chance ahead of the season, but if the last two results are anything to go by, you would be silly to write off NorthEast United's fighting spirit.