Surprise package Neroca FC seek to extend unbeaten run vs Lajong
Imphal: On a roll after a nine-match unbeaten streak in their debut season, Neroca FC will seek to continue their dream run and eye the top spot on the points table when they host struggling Shillong Lajong in an I-League eleven round match on Wednesday.
Neroca have been a surprise package so far this season having lost just once in the 10 matches they have played and they are now in second spot with 21 points. Their only loss so far has come in their campaign opener against Minerva Punjab FC, the current leaders (with 22 points from nine matches), in Ludhinana on December 1.
Since then the Imphal-based side have won six matches and drawn three to make a big impact in this I-League. A win on Wednesday at the Khuman Lampak Stadium where a capacity 30,000 crowd is expected to turn up will take them to the top spot for the first time.
They have also been an impressive side on the road having won four matches away from home, including their last game against defending champions Aizawl FC whom they beat 2-1 in a thrilling match in Aizawl.
Homegrown head coach Gift Raikhan has done a wonderful job so far with his squad which is made up of six foreigners and mostly Manipuri players. Except for Mizo midfielder David Lalbiakzara and goalkeeper Shambhu Mistry from Bengal, all the domestic players are from Manipur. Neroca will start tomorrow's match as favourites as they have beaten the Shillong based side 1-0 in the first leg though Raikhan sought not to be carried away by the away win.
"In football, a coach or a player cannot predict the result of a match beforehand or by how many goals a team will win. We beat them 1-0 in their den and now we are playing at home," he said.
"But that does not guarantee that we will beat them again tomorrow. But for sure we have high expectations and we are confident of winning tomorrow," Raikhan, himself from Manipur, said.
The head coach, who has been instrumental in taking Neroca to the I-League by winning the second division league, said all his players except for captain and goalkeeper Lalit Thapa are 100 per cent fit.
"All the players are fit for tomorrow's match but our captain and goalkeeper Lalit Thapa is not 100 per cent fit. I need to check him on Wednesday," said the former Pune FC assistant coach.
In Thapa's absence Shambhu Mistry had done a very good job under the bar against Aizawl FC, making some very fine saves at crucial moments but Raikhan would not reveal who will man the Neroca goal on wednesday.
"Sambhu Mistry is an experienced players who has played in the second division I-League for a long time. He got a chance because of injury to Lalit Thapa and he was good against Aizawl and I am sure he will prove his worth in future also."
The Indian players in the squad have performed as good as the foreigners this season, especially the likes of Subhash Singh, who has scored three goals so far.
Nigerian Felix Chidi has been in great touch and he is the side's top scorer with four goals. Neroca defence has also been tight. Varney Kallon and Gouramangi Singh have developed a formidable partnership in the central defence. Neroca have Conceded just six goals in 10 matches, the same as conceded by Minerva Punjab who have played one match less.
Nedo Turkovic from Bosnia-Herzegovina has been the saviour of the team with his 89th minute equaliser against East Bengal at Khuman Lampak before the spectacular header that sealed the match for Neroca against Aizawl FC on January 20 in Aizawl.
Shillong Lajong are at sixth spot in the league table with 14 points from 11 matches and they have come into tomorrow's Northeastern derby after a 0-2 defeat against Churchill Brothers in Goa. Before that, they lost to Minerva Punjab 0-1 at home.