Hyderabad FC have looked sharp and clinical in the ongoing edition of the Indian Super League. The Manolo Marquez-managed team are currently fourth in the league table with 16 points from 10 matches.
In a season that has witnessed daily changes to the top four, Hyderabad FC claimed top spot following a 2-2 draw against ATK Mohun Bagan FC last week. However, a 0-1 defeat against Kerala Blasters FC on Sunday dethroned the Nizams and ended their eight-match unbeaten run in the current ISL season.
With the league having entered its second leg, the race to the playoffs is bound to become increasingly competitive. Although Hyderabad FC have won only one of their last five matches, they currently possess the best goal difference (+10). Their success hinges on a good balance between their attack and defense. While their attack, bolstered by Bartholomew Ogbeche, has yielded 20 goals, Hyderabad FC's defense has conceded only 10 goals - the joint-lowest in the division alongside Kerala Blasters.
Hyderabad FC will next face sixth-placed Chennaiyin FC at Fatorda’s PJN Stadium on Thursday. The Chennai-based outfit won the reverse fixture 1-0, courtesy of Vladimir Koman's second-half penalty.
The day before the match, Sportskeeda caught up with Hyderabad FC's Nikhil Poojary for an exclusive chat. The versatile midfielder spoke about his team’s campaign, his experience of playing for Kolkata giants East Bengal and his three-year stint at Hyderabad FC.
Hailing from Mumbai, Poojary has registered one goal, one assist, 1064 passes, 96 tackles, 84 clearances and 31 interceptions in 46 ISL appearances so far.
Q. You grew up in a city that's considered the hub of Indian cricket. What made you interested in football?
Poojary: Yes, cricket is huge in Mumbai, not just in Mumbai but across the country. Just like any other kid in India, I loved playing cricket too. But we had a football curriculum in our school, so my interest started drifting towards football. I knew it was football for me once I fell in love with the "Beautiful Game".
Q. Hyderabad FC have won only one of their last five matches. How much does that worry you heading into the second leg of ISL 8?
Poojary: Honestly, every game is different from the last one. So there's no point in thinking about what happened in the past. We are a good team. We believe in ourselves and will prepare well and hope to get a win in the next game.
Q. You couldn't perform as well as you would've liked against Kerala Blasters FC. Have you discussed the performance with coach Manolo? What input have you received from him?
Poojary: Yes, in every game we play, our ultimate aim is to get three points. But some games you win and some you lose and we were unlucky not to get at least a point against KBFC. [We are] Not taking away anything from KBFC who have been playing well, but I think we were unlucky.
Q. You'll be up against a defensively solid Chennaiyin FC unit in the next match. You lost the first leg 0-1 despite dominating a major chunk of the game. How is the team preparing for the match? How confident are you of returning to winning ways?
Poojary: As I mentioned, we take each game seriously. For us, the past results are in the past. We are preparing really well. The team is motivated to do well. To play against a good team like Chennaiyin, we need to be on our toes and be ready for a challenge. We’ll give our 100 percent as a team and hopefully bring home all three points.
Q. This is your third season at Hyderabad FC. How has this stint helped you evolve as a footballer?
Poojary: It has been a great learning experience – one which has not only helped me evolve as a footballer but also as a person. Yes, as a footballer, it has been a pleasure to work with some of the best coaches here. Coach Manolo, for example, has helped all of us here in getting to the next level. I am really pleased to be here and working with all the staff and the teammates.
Q. Hyderabad FC promote the 'youngistan' brand of Indian football. When the team hits a purple patch, how does coach Manolo ensure that complacency doesn't seep in?
Poojary: Coach Manolo is a great person. He is someone who'll always keep you grounded. For him it's about getting the best out of us all the time.
Q. There is very little margin of error in the current edition of the ISL. What are the areas you think Hyderabad FC can improve on, in a bid to consolidate their position in the top four?
Poojary: I believe this is one of the most competitive seasons of the ISL. Although the league is still pretty young, it has had its fair share of entertainment and this season is right up there. As you can see, there are no easy matches. There's no way we can let our guard down, so we have to keep playing to the best of our abilities.
Q. You spent a significant period of your career in Kolkata whilst playing for East Bengal. How was that experience overall?
Poojary: Playing for the "big two" in Kolkata is an experience in itself. I was very young when I moved to East Bengal and the experience will always stay with me. It helped me in many ways and it will always help me in good stead.
Q. What are Nikhil Poojary's personal targets for this season? Do you think you deserve a comeback in the national team soon, given your steady performance graph over the past two seasons?
Poojary: I’ve always said this and I’ll say it again – my teams’ ambitions are my ambitions. Football is a team sport, we go as a team in every game and compete as one. For me and the Hyderabad family, this season is about making it into the play-offs and we'll take it from there. As for making it back into the national team, yes absolutely! This is what you strive for as a player and I'll always keep giving my best.