NorthEast United FC and SC East Bengal meet in Saturday's Indian Super League (ISL) fixture at the Tilak Maidan in Goa. The two teams are very contrasting in every way — their approach, style, as well as aspirations. Incidentally, the results have been contrasting as well. While East Bengal languish at the bottom of the table, the Highlanders are just lurking outside the top 4 at fifth.
NorthEast United, with their 'lowkey' squad, have done what no one thought they would be able to remain unbeaten in their three outings so far. In fact, they managed to beat title contenders Mumbai City FC in the opener, drew Kerala Blasters FC and, most recently, fought back against last season's table toppers FC Goa to hold them to a draw.
And credit where it should go, Spanish head coach Gerard Nus has shown that his team means business. Friday night could represent Nus' team with another opportunity to pour more misery for East Bengal and if they do, who knows where that might lead them? Robbie Fowler has an injury and sub-par recruitment-enforced crisis on his hands.
The team's Indian players have received public criticism from the coach already while captain Danny Fox is set to miss the game; striker Aaron-Ahmad Holloway is also still recovering from the knock he suffered during pre-season. The pandemic means that East Bengal have been playing without their fans. If it hadn't been behind closed doors, undoubtedly several Red and Gold faithfuls would have been there to offer the emotional boost whether it was Guwahati or Kolkata.
All this, however, doesn't mean that NorthEast are taking East Bengal lightly. "We watched them (East Bengal) play and they did not have the results they wanted. But they are going to be difficult and a threat to us. It will be a tough game," Nus said at the pre-match press conference on Thursday.
"We know how good they are with the ball. They are well organised during set-pieces. We are going to stop them and create chances against them. That's the plan. Not a single game is easy. It has just started. Everybody has the energy and it will be a tough challenge," he added. Nus maybe a little apprehensive before the match but he deserves credit for the way he has shaped up this NorthEast team, a team that he is 'f***ing proud of'. Indeed, Ashutosh Mehta, Dylan Fox, Benjamin Lambot, Khassa Camara, Apuia Ralte, Gurjinder Kumar have all stepped up their game superbly but it has been Nus' approach that has made NorthEast what they are.
The players look like they just won't give up — as if, they are fighting for not just points but their lives. It is this mentality that has earned them the respect of being called the 'underdogs' of the season ahead of others. "We have started in a good direction. We have to improve a lot. The goal for this season is to be competitive. We have to take one game at a time. We will do everything we can to win. We will analyse the opponents. We put a lot of passion into controlling the game."Everyone is putting in good energy. If someone is not willing, he is free to go. We have created a bubble inside a bubble. We are not here for holidaying in Goa," the coach didn't mince his words.
It's true, NorthEast, despite their impressive string of results, have to improve and it doesn't take a genius to figure out where. In the three outings so far, the Highlanders have looked a tad off in attack, they have concentrated more on defending rather than creating. They have scored just one goal from open play while the rest have come from set-pieces or penalties. This could become a problem sooner rather than later but Nus is aware.
When asked about it during the conference, the coach admitted, "We are working to create chances from open play and set-pieces. We will not have only one plan. We are focussing on ourselves." No one considered NorthEast in their top 4 for the season a few weeks back. This isn't a normal season and you feel like anything could happen, and it's too early to tell, but if the Highlanders do win on Friday, should they be considered as genuine contenders for the top 4?