After a gruelling 17 matches in Hero I-League 2016-17, Shillong Lajong FC will do battle for a final time in the second round of the North East Derby when they take on Aizawl FC at Fortress Lajong – the JN Stadium – here on Sunday. The match will kick off at 7PM.
The visiting team require just one point to win the I-League, but Lajong are in no mood to make things easy for the fellow North East club.
The Reds blazed a trail in 2009, becoming the first team from the region to make it to the top tier of Indian football. After seven seasons, Lajong, who are in fifth place, have had their best year so far on the back of the exemplary performances of their Under-22 players and foreign signings.
In keeping with their long-term philosophy of developing North East talent, Shillong Lajong went into this season with the vast majority of the team made up of regional talents, all of whom have shown tremendous growth in maturity.
As evidence of this, four U-22 players – goalkeeper Vishal Kaith and defenders Chinglensana Singh, Nim Dorjee Tamang and Pritam Kumar Singh – have played every minute of every game this season. Vishal has earned 4 man-of-the-match awards, while Nim, Rupert Nongrum and Isaac Vanmalsawma have picked up 1 each. Nim has also captained the side in 14 consecutive games and the U-22 players have produced 9 goals in all, complementing the 10 scored by lead striker Aser Dipanda Dicka, who is leading the charge for the Golden Boot. Three youngsters scored their first I-League goals this season – Rupert Nongrum, Bipin Singh and Redeem Tlang.
Victory tomorrow would be Lajong’s eighth of the season, equalling the number from the 2013-14 season, which had more matches.
Highlighting the importance of the fixture, head coach Thangboi Singto said at the pre-match press conference on Saturday, “The stakes are very high in tomorrow’s game. I wish Aizawl the best, but it’s important that Lajong do well and we will try to win. People say that Aizawl winning the I-League will be good for North East football, but 95 percent of our players are North East boys and representing the region is very important for us.”
“Every coach, every player, wants to be on top. But realistically, we’ve done great this year. The boys are maturing and the results are showing on the field. It’s only in a few matches that we could have done better,” Singto opined. “Having a squad mainly made up of U-22 players is a positive challenge. The players are mature enough to handle this big game,” he added.
The Lajong gaffer admitted that there is immense pressure for this fixture. Thousands of Aizawl fans are expected to throng the JN Stadium in support of the away team, but the Lajong Faithfuls are equally excited about this clash, the like of which has never been seen in Shillong.
Aizawl coach Khalid Jamil admitted that facing Lajong on their home turf will make for a difficult game for his side. Two of his players, Ashutosh Mehta and Alfred Jaryan are unavailable for the match after picking up their fourth yellow cards of the season in the last game, while the Reds will have a full squad to choose from.
“There is no change in preparation for this match,” Jamil said at the press interaction. “We just have to keep in mind that our finish to the season should be a strong one,” he added.
Aizawl have won three and drawn two of their games on the road this season and will look to put the Lajong defence under pressure. After winning four home games in a row at the start of the season, the Reds have experienced mixed results, but are keen to end the season on a winning note in front of their fans.
Also at the press conference was experienced Lajong defender Aiborlang Khongjee. After excusing himself from the first few matches of the season, Aibor played a full 90 minutes in the recent 1-1 draw at Mumbai FC.
Defence has sometimes been an area of concern for Lajong, but Aibor put this down to the fact that the Reds have defended with four local youngsters for much of the season, who have lacked some experience.
“But still, we are prepared to give it our all tomorrow and go for the three points,” he concluded.