If football was judged like artistic gymnastics Odisha would have three points. Finally. The problem is, it’s not. All that drama and it ended in what is essentially stalemate. For 95 minutes, Odisha and NorthEast United FC (NEUFC) battled, a chapter in this very modern rivalry, an Eastern India derby producing seven yellow cards, 36 fouls, 36 shots on goal too (one third of those on target) and two goals that will make the season end compilation without question.
Having been 1-0 up, Odisha went 1-2 down, conceding two either side of half time, the void opening beneath them. But two minutes after conceding they levelled things up again. Cole Alexander did, with a goal that was a 10 from all three judges, and an Olympic medal guaranteed.
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Unlike that outstanding Chennaiyin-FC Goa game, this wasn’t chaotic and ridiculously high on quality. It wasn’t controlled and yawn friendly like yesterday’s ATK masterclass either. It was somewhere in the middle. Which is sort of where these two teams were always expected to finish anyway. Right now though, Odisha are looking up the table, and have been for so long that it’s a wonder their collective necks aren’t aching. And NEUFC have that rare luxury of looking down. The gap between them is already nine points, with seven games of the season gone.
Presumably, Odisha didn’t much care about that. Or if they did they paid it no heed. They started faster, and within the first quarter were a goal up, courtesy the first of their beauties by Diego Mauricio. From a Hendry Antonay throw in on the left, Mauricio turned, taking two touches of the ball, the first with his thigh and second to set up the shot. And then he unleashed one.
In fairness, it wasn’t all that hard hit, and all that well placed. It was hit on the turn after all. Most importantly though, it was on target and it took the minutest of deflections off the 20-year-old NEUFC midfielder Lalengmawia’s heel. Enough to slide in perfectly into Gurmeet Singh’s bottom right corner.
At this point in time, 22 minutes on the clock, it was hard not to feel a little pleased for Odisha. It wasn’t a goal made by luck. It was created and fought for and then earned. If they went into halftime with that lead, that would be enough. It gave Stuart Baxter something to work with. They haven’t led a game at halftime this season. In fact, they haven’t led a game at all.
And even here, after grabbing the lead and with seconds left on the halftime clock they lost it. All it took was a smartly played set piece, the ball dragged back from the top of the Odisha box and then played wide to Ashutosh Mehta to open them up. Mehta floated a superb cross in, and Benjamin Lambot, the man who has played every minute of every game this season, put his shining crown on it and got them level.
In the second half, NEUFC got more compact, started employing their midfield for more than just ball churning and created better chances. The game had opened up and to be fair it looked like either side really could take it. First NEUFC did. A high speed counterattack started by Kewsi Appiah was finished by him. Appiah collected the ball, carried it a few yards and played it wide to Luis Machado. And then he kept running. Machado played a perfectly weighted pass back to him. By now Appiah had run at least 60 metres. And so, he took a first touch away from the goalkeeper and feeling the contact on his heels, fell. There were no doubts about the penalty, about who would take it and what the end result would be.
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Two minutes later though, Odisha did the double off another throw in. It was identical to the first: ball played to Mauricio who turned on the collection, except this time playing a reverse pass to Alexander who took a touch, opened his body and curled it into the far corner. The game was level, but there was 20 minutes left to play! And crucially, genuinely, no exaggeration, Odisha could also have won it.
In the end they didn’t. But they got a point and even that has been hard to come by. They now have two, on equal terms with their next opponent East Bengal. That will be a fun game. It may not win prizes for beauty, but in football aesthetics is its own contained price. There are no real points for beauty.
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