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.
Late on Friday night, Aizawl, fretting over the availability of star defender Masih Saighani, received positive news when he got the Protected Area Permit (PAP) required for Afghan nationals to enter the state of Manipur.
"Masih comes tomorrow morning and will play the match straight away. He got the permit. I am relieved just a little bit as we still will be having only one central back," Aizawl's Portuguese coach Paulo Menezes told IANS.
The 31-year-old Saighani, meanwhile, had landed here on Wednesday with his team but he was initially not allowed to leave the airport and enter Imphal city.
But, after the intervention of the Neroca FC owner, he was allowed to spend the night at the team hotel with special permission. He left Imphal on Thursday morning and was waiting for the clearance in Guwahati.
The match is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. and he is expected to straight away take part in the afternoon kickoff at the Khuman Lampak Main Stadium.
Neroca meanwhile, 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.
Right winger Pritam Singh has proven himself with his performances while the team revolves around Aryn Williams and Fabien Vorbe in midfield and Varney Kallon in the heart of the defence.
"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 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 the 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. Thank God that we have Masih (Saighani) now. But still he is only one central defender so it is a big problem. C.Lalrosanga is suspended, Kareem (Omolaja) is injured since long and also Lalriatrenga," the coach added.
"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.)