Juan Mascia's penalty in the 95th minute gave NorthEast United a dramatic, late win over Bengaluru FC, who seemed to have secured a hard-earned draw after substitute Xisco Hernandez's 82nd minute equaliser. It was Bengaluru's first ever defeat against NorthEast in the ISL.
The hosts earlier produced a superb first half of attacking football, and took the lead when Redeem Tlang found the net with a spectacular, curling effort in the 20th minute.
However, injuries to talismanic striker Bartholomew Ogbeche and midfielder Rowllin Borges, both of whom had to be replaced after the first half, could prove decisive in the return leg in Bengaluru on March 11.
Last year's finalists Bengaluru began nervously, especially in defence, where Albert Serran and the fullbacks Rahul Bheke and Nishu Kumar in particular, had a tough time dealing with the physical presence of captain Ogbeche, and the pace of Tlang, operating as a right winger to support Ogbeche and Federico Gallego. A poorly executed header off a NorthEast cross from Bheke almost had his goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in trouble as early as the third minute, but Sandhu scrambled to pick the feeble header off a NorthEast striker's laces.
NorthEast repeatedly kept the Bengaluru defence on its toes, before Tlang stamped his class over the game with an audacious run into the opposition box from the right, taking on left-back Nishu before unleashing a precise curler with his left foot, that left Sandhu a mute spectator.
Bengaluru tried to reply with some aggression of their own, but barring a long-range attempt by Dimas Delgado in the 24th minute that was well saved by Pawan Kumar, they had little to show in the first half. Ogbeche and Gallego continued to ask questions of the Bengaluru defence, before the former crumbled in a heap while chasing a through ball in the 41st minute. He had to be replaced by Juan Mascia following what looked like a hamstring strain.
NorthEast emerged from the dressing rooms with Nikhil Kadam replacing Borges, who had controlled the centre of midfield effectively in the first half, but also suffered a thigh strain. The forced change allowed Bengaluru space to put the balls into defence, and push up themselves. Coach Carles Cuadrat replaced Serran with Xisco, and this allowed Harmanjot Khabra to replace Bheke at right-back, while the latter moved back to the centre of defence. Bengaluru began creating more pressure, with Sunil Chhetri getting in behind the full backs a few times, but closed down on each occasion by the NorthEast defence.
Xisco came close to scoring with a furious left-footed shot in the 66th minute from the edge of the box, but failed to test Pawan as the ball whistled past his far post. The Spaniard's impact on the game paid dividends going into the last 10 minutes, though, as Chhetri worked his way around the left edge of the box, beat right -back Reagan Singh to send in a measured low pass, which was met by an onrushing Xisco.
With NorthEast winning a free-kick in injury time not far from the Bengaluru box, the referee spotted a needless challenge from Khabra on Mascia inside the penalty area and awarded NorthEast a penalty and Khabra a yellow card. Mascia took his time, jogged up to the ball, and blasted it powerfully into the top right corner, sending NorthEast and their fans into celebrations.