NorthEast United FC are playing their opening match for the first time at home, and unlike the previous two editions, they will hope to fire straightway against Kerala Blasters in the opening match of the Indian Super League (ISL) in Guwahati on Saturday.
NorthEast United have been notoriously slow starters, picking up pace only midway into the league. That has held them back as they have been unable to qualify for semi-finals for two consecutive years. But as they get to host the opening ceremony for the first time, NorthEast United will be eager to hit the ground running.
Not everything, though, has gone their way during pre-season. Their two summer signings, Fabio Neves and Sasha Aneff, are injured and will sit out of the opening clash, providing Portuguese manager Nelo Vingada with a selection headache ahead of the opener.
Bollywood star and NorthEast United owner John Abraham has set a minimum target of semi-finals for the team. The injuries are a definite setback but with so much of options available elsewhere, Vingada, fondly called The Professor, should not be fretting much.
In midfield lies the Highlanders’ strength as the likes of Yusa Katsumi, Seityasen Singh, Fanai Lalrempuia and Ivory Coast’s most capped player Didier Zokora are expected to dominate the battle for control. Up front, Argentinean striker Nicolas Velez is a safe bet while Mailson Alves will be the key man in defence.
Kerala Blasters also have big ambitions of their own and will look for full points as they launch their campaign away from home. With former Manchester United winger Steve Coppell now managing the team, Kerala Blasters have an experienced campaigner whose expertise and experience will be needed all through the campaign.
Kerala Blasters looking to build a new identity
The visitors’ s strength lies in defence where Northern Ireland star Aaron Hughes – with over 100 international caps – will shoulder heavy responsibilities alongside Cedric Hengbart who returns to the team after a year with NorthEast United FC. Players like Elhadji Ndoye and Azrack Mahamat can be used in multiple positions giving Coppell with plenty of options.
Antonio German, who scored six times while also providing three assists for Kerala Blasters last season, will be the key man upfront and could possibly be joined by either Mohammad Rafi or Thongkhosiem Haokip, only the second Indian to score a hat trick in the ISL.
An early clash like this one in the ISL makes it impossible to predict which way the wind will be blowing. What remains for sure is that nobody will want to give an inch.Published 30 Sep 2016, 21:40 IST