14:30 GMT, Saturday 17th February, Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium (Guwahati, India), Sab TV UK
Despite their mid-season resurgence, the Highlanders have not been able to hold on to their momentum, collecting only one point from last four encounters. They’ll face a resurgent Kerala Blasters who are knocking at Chennaiyin’s door for a playoff spot and so have much to lose from this fixture.
Avram Grant’s team will play their third match in seven days, having faced Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa. Their chance of playing in the playoff is virtually non-existent and, despite the lack of pressure, their inability to find the net or defend a point has cost them tremendously.
The Blasters have found form in their last three matches, securing seven points. They will be eager to continue in the same vein of form to go level with fourth-placed Chennaiyin on points, only separated by goal difference.
Last Time Out
NorthEast United 0-1 Delhi Dynamos (Indian Super League)
It was a tale of two halves as NorthEast dominated the first half but only managed to get shot on the goal.
Delhi made a few changes as the match trickled towards the last quarter of the match, which ultimately saw them seal off the three points.
The Highlanders defence made some unforgivable errors, offering too much space to the Delhi forwards who used their new found confidence to burst into the NorthEast box and fire in shots.
Kalu Uche’s header in the 87th minute from David Ngaihte’s pass ultimately served as the decider as Delhi now stand level on points with Grant’s team.
ATK 2-2 Kerala Blasters (Indian Super League)
The Blasters needed a win to break into the top four but produced a subdued performance in the first half. The holders put out a rampant attack in the opening 30 minutes stunning the visitors to make defensive errors but failed to score.
In a comical moment, Gudjon Baldvinsson’s header deflected off Tom Thorpe to land at the back of the goal, putting the visitors in the lead.
Kerala didn’t expect a strong reaction from the home side and were perhaps unlucky to be a victim of deflection themselves as Ryan Taylor’s long-range effort glided off Lalruatthara’s legs to beat Subhasish Roy and bring the scores level.
In the second half, the story of the game reversed as ATK receded back into their half, playing a 3-4-3 formation, soaking up the repeated advances from the Blasters.
Ten minutes after the restart, a scramble ensued from Courage Pekuson’s freekick from outside the box, which ultimately saw Dimitar Berbatov score his first goal in the ISL, with a low thumping drive into the lower left corner.
They were aware that ATK might push for another goal to at least take away a point and the Ashley Westwood’s side equalised once more after 20 minutes of end-to-end football.
Ryan Taylor cross was headed into the back of the net by former Manchester United player Tom Thorpe, grabbing a point for ATK and denying the Blasters entry into the top four.
NorthEast United FC Lineup
Halicharan Narzary’s muscle injury has forced Grant to field Lalrindika Ralte on the left flank and the veteran might get to play against the Blasters as well. The rest of the lineup is also likely to remain constant.
Kerala Blasters Lineup
David James has been making quite a few changes every game without tinkering with the formation. Prasanth K has been persisted as right-back despite having Rino Anto on the bench and is likely to feature against the Highlanders as well with Gudjon Baldvinsson reprising his role in the front.
Key Battle: Rowllin Borges (NorthEast United) vs Courage Pekuson (Kerala Blasters)
Touted as one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, Borges will go up against the Ghanian midfielder on Saturday.
Borges currently acts as the defensive screen for the back-four and has done a commendable job making 22 interceptions in 13 games. The player, who has origins in Goa, also acts as one of the passes central for the team accumulating 552 passes in the same period.
Pekuson will be battling Borges directly as he will look to link up with Baldvinsson and Jackichand Singh in the attack.
David James has been affording Pekuson the freedom to float anywhere in the final third which provides him with the perfect opportunity to create chances for the team and avoid man-to-man marking. It will be an interesting battle between the six-footer defensive midfielder and the pacey Ghanian.
NorthEast risk being pushed to the bottom of the table
The Highlanders form in the recent weeks has dropped and while they have scored only three goals in the last four games, their defence lacks compactness despite having individual brilliance. It’s this nature that has helped opposition teams to take three points away from games despite the slim margin.
They have lost both of their last two games with a 1-0 margin and, in most cases, the goal came late into the match when the defence had lost its shape, opening up to the opposition forwards.
With another loss, they will now risk getting pushed to the bottom of the table as its only goal difference now separating them from Delhi Dynamos.
Blasters lacking firepower up front
Even if the Blasters make it through to the playoffs, there will be widespread concerns regarding their potential to move through to the final stages.
They have already lost Mark Sifneos to FC Goa and with an injury to Iain Hume. Baldvinsson remains their only option as a striker.
While CK Vineeth can be tested in the role, it might not present the same results as a time-tested specialist striker might have.
Prediction: NorthEast United 0-1 Kerala Blasters
The Highlanders defence might not be able to sustain the barrage from Blasters’ pacey wingers. They lost the first leg with a 1-0 margin and look likely to repeat the same result.