The first I-League Northeastern derby of the season was played out between Shillong Lajong and Aizawl FC in Shillong today. This fixture has been one of the most exciting encounters in Indian football in recent times.
Last year both the teams finished close to each other at the fifth and sixth place in the league standings, divided by just two points.
Both the teams came into the game with a positive mindset and wanted to win the game, to get their respective I-League seasons of too a bright start.
It was Lajong who took the early lead in the first half through a Mahesh Singh wonder strike. The first half ended with the scoreboard reading 1-0 to Lajong.
Naorem extended Lajong's lead in the second half to give Lajong a two-goal lead in the 50th minute.
Ansumana Kromah did pull one back for the former Champions Aizawl in the 70th minute from the penalty spot.
The Match ended with the Red of Shillong defeating Aizawl 2-1 to get their I-League season off to the perfect start.
On that note, let's take a look at the five talking points of the game.
#5 Lajong's decision to field an all Indian squad in the I-League pay's off
Shillong Lajong has never managed to reach the heights in the I-League like its Northeastern counterparts NEROCA and Aizawl FC, but still, it is the biggest name in Northeastern football.
Reason? Well, no other top tier team in India has produced more players in India than Shillong Lajong. Be it ISL or the I-League Lajong's academy and grassroots programs players have been playing in both the leagues and making a name for themselves.
During the previous season in the ISL draft/Auction Lajong made a big name for itself by becoming the first club to earn around three crores in Indian football through player sales.
Lajong is often referred to as the Southampton of India given their aim of producing young talents and fielding home-produced players rather than buying them.
Today Lajong fielded an eleven which is entirely homegrown and have at some point or the other come through the Lajong system.
With a lot of media houses and critics predicting Lajong to be relegation contenders the players and the team today showed them that their analysis of the team could be a few points away from the truth.
#4 Lajong's Midfield brilliant going forward, composed while Defending
The young midfield of Lajong was the heart, Lungs and Brains of the side. The Lajong midfield had the likes of Lalrohlua and Samuel Kynshi as the central holding midfielders. LaLawmpuia Hnamte, Phrangki Buam and Samuel Lalmuanpuia played as the trident behind the striker.
The Midfield was mostly busy defending and helping out the defenders but when the team attacked they looked like a well-oiled machine.
The team always looked to attack through the midfield, and the midfielders played to the point beautiful passes.
Phrangki and Samuel had the job of dropping back and then going on the fast counter. Samuel played his passes to the point and often found Mahesh in space. Phrangki on the hand took a more direct approach had a few good shots at goal.
The midfielders were excellent in cutting off the passing channels in the midfield and covered for the defenders when they were out of position.
With quick interchanging of positions and sly one-touch passes, this Lajong midfield came as a genuine surprise to Aizawl.
#3 Lot of foreplay lack of action; Story of Aizawl FC today
Aizawl FC had the upper hand in the game right from the start and could have taken the lead in the fifth minute when Kromah beat a couple of defenders, but his shot was off the mark.
Aizawl from then on found it tough to stretch open the Lajong defence. With midfield being jammed up by the Lajong midfielders the Aizawl team looked out of ideas.
Aizawl had the lion's share of the ball with 57% Ball possession, but most of it was meaningless back or sideways passes.
They did try the direct route one football, but it wasn't of much use as the Lajong back four had their lines covered and cleared every danger that came their way.
The Defenders of Lajong also caught the likes of Kromah and Dodoz offside on a couple of occasions, and they played the Offside trap to perfection.
Kromah, Dodoz, and Alfred, all the foreigners for Aizawl were way below par and were at a couple of instances outsmarted by their opponents.
Aizawl even with all their possession and shots had very little to show for at the end of the game.
#2 Lajong's change in tactics catches Aizawl off-guard
Lajong, in general, started the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation and looked to play in that shape during the initial phase of the game.
After the initial few minutes, one could see that while on the ball Lajong had a 4-3-3 approach with Samuel and Phrangki moving forward to support Naorem. Sometimes Phrangki would stay back, and Lyngdoh would move forward.
In the second half at times, one could see that Lajong took a more old school 4-4-2 approach with the likes of Naorem and Samuel upfront. The front two policy sort of worked for Lajong as it helped them stretch the defenders and create space for the midfielders to run into.
When Aizawl pulled one back and reduced the goal deficit to just one, we could see Shillong shut down shop and play in a 5-4-1 formation, something which eventually helped them win the game.
With Alison continually changing his tactics Gift Raikhan at times looked out of ideas and eventually these small changes for a few minutes had a significant impact on the game.
#1 A Wall Named Kenstar-Aibanbha
Naorem Mahesh Singh was awarded as the Man of Match for his brace and heroics in front of goal. The award though could have easily gone to Aibanbha Doling or Kenstar Kardong.
Aibanbha Doling is someone who is new to people following Indian football, but Kenstar Kardong in someone who impressed everyone with his performance last season.
A certain Khalid Jamil will remember Kenstar Kardong very well as Kenstar was one of the main reason's for East Bengal drawing the game with Lajong and eventually losing the league to Minerva.
Kenstar and Aibanbha have a partnership which looks like the perfect good cop bad cop duo. Kenstar plays the role of a Good Cop by keeping it tidy and not lunging into tackles and playing neat and tidy football, following the philosophy of not having to go in for a tackle and not making mistakes.
Aibanbha, on the other hand, has a Sergio Ramos style of defending in him. He loves going in for tackles, and he is excellent in the air.
In the second half, Lalrinfela put in a lovely cross into the box, both Dodoz and Kromah were waiting inside the box, Dodoz couldn't reach the ball given the lack of space to run into due to Kenstar perfect covering.
The Ball delightful cross had beat the Lajong keeper and it looked like Kromah would bury it, but just as Kromah was lining up, a shot Aibanbha came flying in to clear it away. That one instant was a perfect example of the way the duo like to defend.
Both of them did a brilliant job to counter two proven foreign goal scorers in the I-League and seldom did the youngsters make a mistake during the game.
The Lajong duo also did not hoof balls up forward and played the ball forward from the back. Both of them even look confident on the ball which is a welcome change for Indian centre-backs as most of them are very uncomfortable with the ball at their feet.