NorthEast v Chennaiyin FC: Visitor facing tough task

NorthEast United FC has led the ISL table since its opening day win over Kerala Blasters FC, and a win against defending champion will open a clear five-point gap at the top of the table.

Chennaiyin FC has never beaten NorthEast United FC.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

NorthEast United FC will be looking to consolidate its lead at the top when it hosts defending champion Chennaiyin FC here in an Indian Super League clash at the Indira Gandhi Stadium on Thursday. Perched at the top of the current standings with 10 points from five matches, the host hopes to preserve the form that saw it winning both the matches at home in the first two rounds.

Gaining mostly from the shape inspired by experienced Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada, NorthEast United has been able to shrug off the tag of minion it bore in the last couple of seasons. Picking up a win (1-0) in the opening match against Kerala Blasters, the NEUFC doubled the points with an even better showing against the last year’s runner-up FC Goa (2-0). The team picked up another four points from a win and a draw in the three away fixtures thereafter before returning home to play the sixth match against the holder.

What will be inspiring the host even further will be the fact that it has never lost a match against Chennaiyin FC (won three and drawn one in the last four meetings). Vingada sought to downplay this statistical advantage saying such records do not count in a tournament which is hardly two seasons old. What Vingada, popularly known as ‘The Professor’, has sought to preach instead is the mentality to win.

Going by what the team has achieved so far, it speaks a lot about determination and application that the side showed in picking up three wins and a draw (in five matches). Vingada has used his experience well in finding a good balance in defence and attack with a 4-1-4-1 formation, which the coach has used in the last four matches.

He said his current team NEUFC has done well so far showing “good organisation and spirit” and hoped that NEUFC will be able to replicate that form against Chennaiyin FC and open up a good lead at the top. “Going by what happened in the past two seasons we can hope to reach the knock-out stage if we can manage 22 points and more,” the NEUFC coach.

The Portuguese coach toed the lines suggested by the legendary Brazilian Zico, who recently called for more Indians in the starting line-up of ISL teams. “I would prefer to see six Indians and five international players next year. This league is a good learning process for the Indian players and one could hope for them to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup tournament proper in maybe four-five years,” Vingada said on Wednesday.

“I have seen a lot of good Indian players in this tournament. I would readily like more Indian players to get the chance to play with quality international players to learn the finer skills of the game,” Vingada, who has the experience coaching national teams of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran, said.

Marco Materazzi, the temperamental Italian World Cupper who has shaped Chennaiyin FC into a force to reckon with, will be looking to erase the adverse record against NEUFC with a win. This would be a priority for Materazzi, who has a World Cup title under his belt, especially after the bitter 0-2 loss his team suffered last season at the same venue. The matches ended with skirmishes among the players after Harmanjyot Khabra (of Chennaiyin) was controversially sent off with a red card.

With a lot of new faces to account for, Materazzi has been dabbling with different formations in the last three outings. Keeping Italian Davide Succi in the centre of attack and using the likes of Dutch midfielder Hans Mulder and Brazilian Raphael Augusto in the middle, Materazzi has used Indians like Jayesh Rane, Baljit Sahni in the supporting role to pick up the first win of the tournament, which happened in the last round against FC Goa.

The defending champion will be looking push ahead with the new-found rhythm to better its current status in the standings, which is sixth with four points from three matches.

Materazzi said his team has played only three matches and there is time to pick up if the team gets the desired rhythm. “The start is almost same as we had last year. We should not have lost two points in Kolkata (in the 2-2 draw against ATK) in the first match where we played well. The next match against Delhi we played poor football but did well to pick up full points against Goa.”

“NorthEast United is in good form and has every reason to be on top (of the standings). But we have to keep ourselves organised to beat them tomorrow,” the Chennayin coach held out the game plan for the next outing.

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