Panaji, February 11: Fresh from a 2-1 win over Jamshedpur FC, SC East Bengal are all set to take on Hyderabad FC in their second-leg Hero Indian Super League clash at the Tilak Maidan Stadium on Friday.
Speaking about the contest at the virtual pre-match Press conference on Thursday, SCEB Assistant Coach Tony Grant said, 'I rate Hyderabad very highly. I think they have recruited really well over the past two years and they have got some good Indian players. They know what they are doing.'
Hyderabad FC had won the reverse fixture 3-2 in December last year, courtesy goals from Aridane Santana (2) and Halicharan Narzary, while Jacques Maghoma had scored a brace for SCEB.
'I think the first time we faced them, it was more of a poor play from us that allowed them to score two goals within seconds. They are going to give us a touch challenge tomorrow.'
The Red-and-Golds currently stand ninth on the league table with sixteen points from as many matches (three wins, seven draws and six defeats).
The victory against Jamshedpur FC on Sunday was a major confidence-booster for Robbie Fowler's side. It was a fillip to their playoff aspirations, which had been dampened by their 0-2 defeat to Bengaluru FC. They now aim to make the most of their remaining four matches and amass as many Ws as possible.
With six changes in their starting XI, SCEB looked the better side from the outset against JFC. Not only did they dominate possession, create more chances and pass the ball better, but they also fared well defensively by keeping the opposition's attacking quartet of Nerijus Valskis, Nicholas Fitzgerald, Farukh Choudhary and Seiminlen Doungel at bay for the majority of the match. In brief, it was arguably SCEB's most commanding performance this season.
What makes the win really special is that it was the outcome of a collective effort. The induction of Sarthak Golui and Sourav Das has certainly bolstered SCEB's strength, while seasoned Indian campaigners like Narayan Das, Subrata Paul and Raju Gaikwad performed their duties to the best of their abilities.
The deployment of Indian players beside captain Danny Fox at the back enabled the SCEB think-tank to field a four-pronged overseas attack for the first time this season, and it paid dividends.
While Anthony Pilkington and Bright Enobakhare spearheaded their frontline, Matti Steinmann slipped seamlessly into the role of the classical No. 10, passing the ball forward and being in the right positions to meet the set-pieces.
Talking of set-pieces, half of SCEB's goals so far have come off dead ball situations, which is a dubious statistic as it implies that only seven goals have come from open play. The Red-and-Golds would surely want to score more from open play heading into the final lap of Hero ISL 2020-21.
HFC, on the other hand, are one of the prime contenders for the playoffs, having collected twenty-three points from sixteen matches (five wins, eight draws and three losses).
The Nizams are currently on an eight-match unbeaten run, but wins have come in only three of these eight matches. They played out a 0-0 stalemate against NorthEast United FC at the Tilak Maidan last Sunday and are currently fourth on the table.
Yet to lose a game in 2021, Manolo Marquez's side represents a healthy balance between attack and defense. They are fifth in terms of total goals scored by a club thus far (20), while their defensive unit has helped them register six clean sheets, four of which have come in the last eight matches alone.
Spanish forward Santana is HFC's leading scorer this season with seven goals to his name, and he is ably supported by Narzary, Joel Chianese, Fran Sandaza and Liston Colaco.
Their young Indian contingent has looked very impressive with the likes of Narzary, Colaco, Akash Mishra, Asish Rai, Chinglensana Singh, Mohammad Yasir, Hitesh Sharma and Nikhil Poojary emerging as revelations. These players contribute heavily alongside Odei Onaindia and Joao Victor to HFC's rapid transitional style of play, as evidenced by their 6,665 passes (third-highest) and 8,888 touches (third-highest). In fact, Onaindia registered a 94% pass accuracy against NEUFC, making only two mispasses in the match.
What is Grant's assessment of this HFC line-up? 'Our form has been good in the last ten matches. We'll try and keep the ball away from them. Hopefully our players can cause more problems for them with the ball than they can for us,' the former Everton and Manchester City footballer opined.