NorthEast United FC have been on a fairy tale run in the seventh edition of the Indian Super League. Defying all odds, they have silenced critics, who had written them off after their mid-season slump. But then came Khalid Jamil, who produced a stunning turnaround to lead them to just their second playoffs.
Jamil has remained unbeaten in the nine games, recording six wins and three draws. He now looks to carry on with that momentum when his team clashes against ATK Mohun Bagan at the GMC Stadium, Bambolim, on Saturday.
The coach believes all credit must go to his players. “All the players have worked very hard. Because of them, we have reached here. I never think about the nine matches. It’s about right from the first game. The boys have worked hard and I am very proud to be their coach,” Jamil said.
The match will be between the two sides with similar approaches. Both teams will be set up in a compact way to make it difficult for the opposition
Every time the Highlanders have taken a lead, they have been impossible to beat. They took the lead on 13 occasions this season and won eight, shared points in the rest.
Jamil is aware of the importance of scoring first. “We are going to play against a good team. ATK Mohun Bagan are a good side. Defensively strong and their attack is strong too. We have to be very careful as the first match is very important. It will be the toughest game of the league. So we will have to prepare well and we will have to be strong.” Jamil said
Bagan work on similar lines. Having taken the lead 14 times, ATKMB have won 12 and drawn 2.
Even though the last three games cost ATK Mohun Bagan the League Winners Shield, the club is still in the contest for the ISL crown and will hope to redeem their season by lifting the title.
“NorthEast United have had a good ISL season. It’s a very difficult team because they have good players in defence, central midfield and good players in attack. They also had good performances and give 100 percent on the pitch,” said Habas.
NorthEast can look at history for encouragement. Bagan coach Antonio Habas is winless in 3 first leg ISL semi-finals, losing 2 and drawing 1. “It’s an advantage but we are thinking about tomorrow. It’s our first game we have to be careful,” added Jamil.
NorthEast United for their defensive solidity have also been scoring plenty of goals. They were joint second highest scorers in the league phase with FC Goa.
However, up against the league’s best defence, the Higlanders’ forward line will have their work cut out.
The other major worry for NorthEast United will be Roy Krishna. The Fijian forward has almost single-handedly taken ATK Mohun Bagan to the semi-finals and has a habit of deciding close games.
He had the best goals-per-game ratio in the league phase and Jamil will need to chalk out a plan to stop him.
Given the two coaches’ approach expect the first leg to be cagey and all about not losing. But for purists, it presents an opportunity to witness a great tactical battle, almost a battle of chess.
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