The first leg of the ISL 2020-21 semi-final between both teams ended in a 1-1 draw on Saturday.

Just when it looked like ATK Mohun Bagan will be heading to the second leg with a victory, a last-gasp header from NorthEast United substitute Idrissa Sylla spoiled the party for the Mariners. Khalid Jamil’s men just do not know about giving up, and kept on pushing till the final whistle. Sylla made sure that the Highlanders salvage something for their efforts.

Antonio Habas and his men started brightly and created some good chances in a very cagey affair. While Roy Krishna was heavily marked by Benjamin Lambot and Dylan Fox, it was his partner David Williams who scored the opening goal. For a long stretch of the game, it looked like it would be the only goal. But thanks to Sylla, the Highlanders will now have something to say in the second leg and Jamil will hope that his men will turn up stronger than this one.

Here are the three things we learned from the first leg of the Semifinal 2 in Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21.

McHugh-Kotal defensive partnership the way forward for ATKMB

ISL 2020-21 Highlights SF2: NorthEast United Vs ATK Mohun Bagan

Earlier this season, ATK Mohun Bagan’s defensive concerns started in the league match against Hyderabad where Aridane Santana and company simply toyed with their backline. Habas’ most trusted soldier Tiri was looking down in confidence after conceding a cheap goal. While the mistake created mental stress, the Spaniard’s performance kept on deteriorating. He was again put to the sword for the opening goal which the Mariners conceded against Mumbai City FC.

Amid Tiri’s poor form and a huge hit on his confidence, the Mariners also lost another star in Sandesh Jhingan. He picked up a knock in the match against Hyderabad and was subbed out late in the game. Although he started the match against the Islanders he could not continue. So to fill that void in the semifinals, Habas started with Pritam Kotal and Carl McHugh. For most parts of the game, the new centre-back pairing looked very stable. It would have been a masterstroke for the Spanish tactician had they won the match and also kept a clean sheet. But even without it, the duo showed promise throughout the game and there is no reason why the coach would not try them again in the second leg.

NorthEast United’s fighting spirit keeping them alive

The fortunes of the Highlanders changed drastically when they appointed Khalid Jamil as their head coach. The team has looked a lot more lively and adventurous in attack and pretty solid in defence. They are also unbeaten in ten consecutive matches since. Jamil has struck the right chords with the Indian and foreign mix of players and therefore, on some days it is VP Suhair and Apuia making the difference while on other days it is Gallego or Machado. Against ATKMB, it was Sylla who played that role. Hence, NorthEast United have shown a lot of courage, determination and self-belief to eke out results when it is least expected.

The camaraderie in this team goes beyond mere results and therefore they have had such a successful season. While individual brilliance may win a few matches, a team that stands together are capable of winning championships. Jamil has instilled in the team a sense of never-die-spirit and that has propelled them to a higher stature.

David Williams, a man for the big occasions

There were a lot of talks doing rounds surrounding Williams and his ongoing form this season. Therefore, the Australian has come up with multiple replies in different phases of the league for the Mariners. While he has evidently underperformed scoring only four goals along with two assists, it must also be noticed that the 33-year-old scores some of the most crucial goals for Antonio Habas’ side.

Whenever Williams scored for a side led by Antonio Habas, the matches have always resulted in wins. But this streak obviously ended yesterday when Sylla scored and drew the game for the Highlanders. But we simply cannot forget the importance of David Williams. Even in his not-so-good season, he has been instrumental for the Mariners.

The former Wellington Phoenix man does not always get the limelight. But when the chips are down, he is the one who comes up with a defence-splitting through pass or a stunning long ranger to restore hope among the Mariners. With the second leg coming up, Khalid Jamil and his men will be wary of the danger that the forward possess.

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