14:30 GMT, Wednesday 7th February, Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium (Guwahati, India), Sab TV UK
Avram Grant’s arrival has rekindled the fight in NorthEast United’s game. After coming from behind to draw against FC Goa, the Highlanders are now set to face the Marcelinho test.
Grant has already led the team to beat FC Goa and Chennaiyin at home while drawing against the Gaurs away from home.
Though a top four spot might be out of the reach, they continue to entertain fans with an attractive brand of football and might as well spoil the party for some of the big names in the league.
The Stallions are now tied with Jamshedpur with 22 points and have a game in hand.
Their last match ended in a home defeat against Kerala Blasters and while they are still well-poised to make the playoffs, a loss against NorthEast will complicate things.
Last Time Out
FC Goa 2-2 NorthEast United FC (Indian Super League)
The match presented the Highlanders’ weaknesses and strengths in an equal light as they conceded the lead twice, only to come back from behind. It showed how much the team has grown considering before Grant’s arrival, they had scored one out of eight matches.
However, the game also highlighted their inability to defend on the counter and the defensive frailties displayed by the centre-back duo Jose Goncalves and Sambinha.
Mandar Rao Desai broke the deadlock in the 42nd-minute netting from a curling shot. The visitors reacted within two minutes with an equally impressive shot from Marcinho.
After the restart, it was Manuel Lanzarote and Ferran Corominas’s deadly combination which gifted the home side the lead once again from a swift counter-attack.
Jose Goncalves failed to keep pace with Corominas while TP Rehenesh was reduced to a mere spectator in both the goals.
NorthEast bounced back again, with a goal from substitute John Mosquera as the Columbian tapped in Halicharan Narzary’s cross in the box.
FC Pune City 1-2 Kerala Blasters (Indian Super League)
The Stallions managed to dominate every aspect of the match against Kerala, except for the scoreline. They kept the ball longer, enjoying 53% possession with higher pass accuracy and more shots on goal than their opposition.
Yet, the home side could not manage a single point. While luck could be blamed in part for denying Marcelinho’s two long-range efforts, both of which bounced off the woodwork, they did get a penalty in questionable circumstances.
Taking advantage of the penalty decision, Emiliano Alfaro converted from the spot in the 79th minute to level Pune, after Jackichand Singh sent the visitors to the lead with a stunning drive from outside the 18-yard box.
However, despite Pune’s repeated advances, the Blasters managed to hold them off, until CK Vineeth once again scored a goal in the dying minutes to steal the three points away from the Stallions.
NorthEast United FC Lineup
The Highlanders will look to start an unchanged side after competitive displays with the same starting 11.
FC Pune City Lineup
Ashique Kuruniyan remains sidelined with an injury. Baljit Sahni was given an opportunity on the wings against Kerala but was replaced in the 71st minute. Isaac Vanmalsawma may get to start in place of Sahni.
Key Battle: Marcinho (NorthEast United) vs Marcelinho (FC Pune City)
It will the battle of the Brazilians as Marcinho takes on Marcelinho.
The former represents the focal point of the Highlanders attack, linking up with Seminlen Doungel, Halicharan Narzary and Danilo Lopes/John Mosquera.
His ability to anticipate movements and create opportunities for his teammates makes him the perfect number ten for NorthEast United.
However, his opponent on Wednesday is no less effective for his team, if not more.
Marcelinho failed to hit the back of the net against Kerala, but his through-balls and long-range effort provided much threat to the Blasters goal.
As luck would have it, Pune lost the opportunity to go top of the league, but a win against the NorthEast United will propel them to the second position behind Bengaluru.
The person who will need to create magic on the pitch once again will be Marcelinho.
The Highlanders defence leave them exposed
The defensive unit of TP Rehenesh, Jose Goncalves, Sambinha, Nirmal Chhetri and Reagan Singh haven’t been the best this season, conceding 19 goals in 12 matches.
They have the third worst defensive tally in the league behind bottom-placed Delhi Dynamos and cavalier FC Goa.
While both Goncalves and Sambinha have plenty of experience playing the top leagues across the globe, they haven’t been able to offer enough protection to their keeper.
Additionally, they have one of the worst records in defending against crosses and can’t seem to keep pace with most of the forwards in the league.
Rehenesh himself has not been in the best of form often making schoolboy errors.
He currently sits eight in the league’s tally for most saves, bettering only Vishal Kaith and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, both of whose teams have more stable defences.
Prediction: FC Pune City 2-0 NorthEast United
The Highlanders have been able to organise their attack well in recent games, but their defence has often been found lacking.
Against a team like FC Pune City, they will need to be more compact defensively to resist their charms.