ISL 2020-21 preview: In-form NorthEast United set for ATK Mohun Bagan challenge

NorthEast United FC will face ATK Mohun Bagan in the first leg of the second 2020-21 Indian Super League semifinal at the GMC Stadium in Bambolim on Saturday.

NorthEast United FC and ATK Mohun Bagan traded a victory each when they faced off in the 2020-21 ISL's league stage (File Photo).   -  Sportzpics

NorthEast United FC will be looking to build on its unbeaten run in the last nine matches when it takes on a strong ATK Mohun Bagan side in the first leg of the second Indian Super League (ISL 2020-21) semifinal at the GMC Stadium on Saturday.

Among the four teams progressing to the playoffs, NorthEast’s ascendance has been the most remarkable as it recovered from a mid-season slump, which saw it dropping to the bottom half of the league table, before emerging as one of the title contenders.

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The man behind NEUFC’s spectacular turnaround is Khalid Jamil, who took over as interim head coach at the time of crisis and helped the team reach the semifinals for only the second time in its short history. Jamil, who had joined the team as an assistant coach in the previous season, remained unbeaten in all the nine games he managed as the Highlanders recorded a creditable six wins and three draws.

“All the players have worked very hard. Because of them, we have reached here. I never think about the nine matches. This is a very serious game and we will have to fight for everything. The boys have worked hard through the season and I hope they continue to do so in the next few matches,” Jamil said on the eve of the match.

ATKMB remains as one of the most consistent sides ever in the tournament but slips in the last two matches cost it the prospect of winning the ISL League Winners' Shield. Coach Antonio Habas, who has the experience of winning the title twice with ATK before the merger, will be hoping to arrest the slump and help Mohun Bagan regain the winning form.

“We have to think positively and get back to the rhythm with which we have played so far. Our target will be winning the title and we have to put our best efforts to realise it,” Habas said. The Mariners are likely to miss their injured central defender Sandesh Jhingan.

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The statistics show that both teams exhibit high levels of compactness at the back. Scoring first on the night would be crucial as none of the two sides have lost a match this season after taking the lead. NorthEast won eight and drew the remaining five in the 13 occasions it has scored first, while Mohun Bagan has an even better record with 12 wins and two draws the 14 times when it has taken the lead.

“We are going to play against a good football team. ATKMB is defensively strong and has a good attack. It will be the toughest game of the league. While progressing to this stage, my boys have shown the right temperament and the heart to take on any opponent. I am proud as their coach,” Jamil said.

Habas also had a lot of good words for his next opponent. “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, always giving 100 percent on the pitch,” Habas said while setting the tone for a tough fight ahead in Bambolim.