Neroca FC would like to provisionally return to the top of the table with a win over reigning champions Aizawl FC, when the two sides cross swords in an I-League North East derby at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium here on Saturday.
Neroca have so far defied odds to stay firmly in contention for an improbable title triumph. The newly-promoted Manipur-based team have displayed slick football under coach Gift Raikhan and are currently placed second in the points table with 27 points from 14 matches.
Minerva Punjab FC, another surprise overachiever, are two points clear of Neroca and have played a game less. As they do not play until Tuesday, at home against East Bengal, Neroca could well pip them in the see-saw battle between the two new faces of the country's top division.
The odds are heavily in favour of Neroca to beat lowly Aizawl who have looked anything but the holders this season. After realising their own fairytale story last term, the Mizoram-based side have struggled to replicate their success with key players leaving the outfit for greener pastures.
The recent wins that Neroca have picked against Churchill Brothers and more recently Gokulam Kerala FC are a boost for the club, having recovered from two back-to-back losses against Minerva and Shillong Lajong.
Felix Chidi (5) and Subhash Singh (3) have been the top scorers for the club, Nedo Turkovic has been deemed more effective coming off the bench accordingly to Akhlidin Israilov, who has recently fallen out of favour in coach Raikhan's plans.
"We are under extra pressure as the last four matches are upon us now and all of them will be high-octane," Neroca FC coach Raikhan told IANS ahead of the tie.
"Without pressure there is no fun. We will fight together and football is all about pressure. For these four matches we have to prepare well and we must win If we don't win we don't stand a chance," he added.
For Neroca Australian midfielder Aryn Williams is injured. "He is out. We have lot of options open," Raikhan said.
Aizawl, placed sixth in the table, have been winless in their last five outings, their latest reversal coming at the hands of rejuvenated Churchill Brothers on the road.
"We were good in that match and I am happy with the performance. We will look to carry forward the momentum," Aizawl's Portuguese coach Paulo Menezes told IANS on the eve of the game.
"We don't have a proper centre back ahead of the game. If Masih (Saighani) is also out, it is a big problem. C.Lalrosanga is suspended, Kareem (Omolaja) is injured since long and also Lalriatrenga," the coach added.
Afghanistan defender Masih was on Wednesday denied entry after he arrived in the city without a Protected Area Permit (PAP) required by Afghan nationals to enter Manipur. He is still stuck in Guwahati and his situation is up in the air.
"We are still waiting for a good news. It will affect our preparations as Masih is an important player, more so now as we do not have centre weeks. Lalrosanga got a red card in the last game and Kareem is also out. So our squad is depleted," Menezes said.
"We will try to find a fix and that's not a problem. We will at the end of the day play 11 against 11," he added.
Kareem picked up a knock in Aizawl's 1-2 home defeat to Neroca in the reverse fixture and has been ruled out of the season.
All in all, it would be an uphill task for Aizawl to overcome a strong Neroca challenge in their own lair, more so with so much limitations.
(Debayan Mukherjee is in Imphal at the invitation of the AIFF. He can be contacted at email@example.com)
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)