Shillong, Nov 8: Shillong Lajong FC couldn’t have hoped for a better first home match on their I-League return as they are set to face NEROCA of Manipur in a North East Derby at First Ground, Polo, here tomorrow. Kick-off will be at 2PM.

Lajong earned a point on the road in their season opener against Mohammedan Sporting on 3rd November and have returned home to host NEROCA, who haven’t had the best start to the season. They’ve played two games and have lost both heavily – 4-0 to Sreenidhi Deccan on 29th October and 4-1 to Gokulam Kerala on 5th November.

Speaking at the pre-match press conference today, Lajong coach Bobby Lyngdoh Nongbet said that it would be wrong to take tomorrow’s opponents lightly.

“We earned a hard fought point against Mohammedan Sporting and that will motivate us. We have to take advantage of playing at home,” he said. “But we can never underestimate any team, especially one that has lost two games and is eager for a win. I believe they will come back strongly.”

While generally pleased with the performances of the local and international players against Mohammedan, Nongbet said that only after five or six matches can he really assess where they stand.

“There were a couple of chances that we missed… The foreigners are a good bunch and have coped with the Indian scenario – the playing conditions, weather, style of football. All are playing in India for the first time. We’ve got a long way to go and have played just one game, so we have to see after five-six matches how our players perform,” he said.

SLFC goalkeeper Bishal Lama was dealt an injury in the previous match after a collision with an opponent. He is still recovering and may not feature in tomorrow’s squad.

The game will mark the return of the I-League to Shillong since the end of the 2018-19 season, after which Lajong were relegated. However, the venue this time will be First Ground, a few hundred metres away from the JN Stadium. The scene today was one of hurried activity, with work on constructing new dugouts, painting touch-ups, etc making it a hive of activity. As the ground has no floodlights (they’re actually in the process of being installed) matches will be afternoon kick-offs for the foreseeable future.

This evening’s rain may make conditions a little boggy tomorrow, depending on heavy it rains and how fast the water on the pitch evaporates; the ground currently has insufficient drainage capacity. Dry or wet, expect a few players to slip on the new artificial turf; despite being in use for a few months now, the surface is still a little slippery, as was seen in the SSA Fourth Division final on Saturday.

The surface being artificial grass is another factor going against NEROCA, which faced difficulties preparing for the season well before it began.

The continuing civil strife in Manipur meant that the club relocated its pre-season training to Kolkata, their new coach Jacob Joseph said today.

“This will be our third away game in a row, which makes it difficult for a coach to plan. It took nearly 24 hours to get here (from Gokulam Kerala’s home venue of Kozhikode) and that has been difficult for player recovery,” he said. “Hope our players are able to play on the turf because they have less experience (of artificial grass).”

With Manipur subjected to curfews it was difficult to train there, which necessitated the move to Kolkata but, even there, NEROCA didn’t get quality opposition in friendly matches except through meeting East Bengal and only had 15 days of “proper training” before the season began.

The squad is a relatively inexperienced one with this being the debut I-League season for most of them.

“Nerves are there… Goals against us came through player mistakes and I have changed three defensive players,” Jacob said.

Accompanying the coach to the press conference was Soram Anganba, NEROCA’s goalkeeper and a former Lajong footballer from more than a decade ago.

“Everyone wants to do their best. In the other two matches we started well but were tired in the second half. We have a new bunch of players, so it’s taking time getting used to each other,” he said.

NEROCA entered the I-League in 2017-18 and made a splash by finishing second that season. They’ve met Lajong four times in the I-League and beaten them on three occasions before the Reds were relegated. However, since then, NEROCA have struggled and have usually finished towards the bottom of the points. The 2023-24 season has started poorly for them and Lajong need to make full use of the massive advantage they have and grab 3 points tomorrow.

(Photo: Shillong Lajong/Facebook)

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