"We will have to turn up on the day and execute our plans because they will run away with the game if we lose focus even for one second" were the exact words uttered by NorthEast United Head Coach Gerard Nus while addressing the media on the eve of their opening fixture of the ISL 2020-21 season against Sergio Lobera's Mumbai City.
Lobera and his men look like the strongest side on paper this season and facing them right in the first fixture could be quite unnerving for any team. But the 35-year-old Nus, who is also the youngest coach in this ISL season, seemed quite determined and upbeat about the challenge, considering the way he spoke in the press conference.
At the same time, he addressed the importance of staying focused at every second of the game against a side like Mumbai City and wanted his players to really step up to the challenge.
And the players really did so as they lived by each and every word he said to register a clinical and gritty 1-0 victory over the tournament favourites on Saturday.
Mumbai City had made their intentions clear right from the beginning of the match as they kept invading NorthEast's defensive zone regularly, but Nus and his men were equally up to the task as they didn't let them breach their defence.
Mumbai took plenty of shots though, but none of them was on target.
Bartholomew Ogbeche had succeeded in breaching their defence and entering their penalty box on one occasion as well, but Ashutosh Mehta dealt with his threat successfully and didn't allow him to take a shot.
The Highlanders just sat back and waited for their moment to arrive. Mumbai City were charging into their zone relentlessly, but NorthEast kept pushing them back time and again.
The breaking point of the match came when Ahmed Jahouh was sent off for an ugly challenge on Khassa Camara in the 43rd minute of the match. That reduced Mumbai City to a 10-man side and thus gave NorthEast just the kind of advantage they wanted. They attacked in the remaining few minutes of the first half as well but couldn't find the goal.
However, the Highlanders didn't have to wait long as a hand-ball by Rowlin Borges off a header from NorthEast defender Dylan Fox earned them a penalty. Ghanaian international Kwesi Appiah was entrusted with the responsibility of taking the penalty and he made no mistake as he slotted it straight into the back of the net by sending Mumbai goalkeeper Amrinder Singh in the wrong direction. That was the only goal by the Highlanders in that match and in the end, it proved to be enough for them to take away three valuable points.
Focusing completely on defence against attack-minded sides can be quite a risky strategy. All it takes is just one mistake, just one moment of distraction, to undo all the hard work. However, that's how Nus had prepared his players for this challenge and the players lived up to his expectations. Their execution was perfect and they didn't let their focus flinch even for a second.
If we look at the numbers, Mumbai City made a staggeringly high number of passes as compared to NorthEast and they kept almost double the amount of possession as well. Their pass accuracy was significantly better than NorthEast too, but all that mattered, in the end, was the Highlanders' grit, poise and determination.
A side like Mumbai City FC can only be expected to come back stronger from this loss, but this win is a huge psychological boost for Gerard Nus and his men. More so considering the fact that they had to deal with two global virus-infected players and had played a lesser number of pre-season friendlies as well. Credit should be given to Nus, who prepared the side in such a fine manner, and also the players who stepped up to the occasion as well.
Feature image courtesy: Twitter.com / @IndSuperLeague