NorthEast United FC and Mumbai City FC have a few things in common. The eastern-most team in the Indian Super League (ISL) plays its football in the lap of the mountains while the western-most team in the league have their stadium just a few miles from the sea. 

The Highlanders and the Islanders as they are rightly called aren't meant to be similar as they mark the width of India’s footballing map. 

On the pitch too, the two teams were poles apart in ISL 2022-23. While the Islanders finished top of the league with a record points and goals tally, recording the longest winning and unbeaten streaks in the league’s history in the process, the Highlanders were rooted to the bottom of the league securing the lowest points tally in the history of the ISL. 

As they prepare to meet in their respective opening matches of the ISL 2023-24 campaign, the contrast between the two teams on and off the pitch is palpable. Des Buckongham’s side have scored in 13 consecutive away games and are chasing Chennaiyin’s record run of 16 matches. NorthEast United FC on the other hand are on a nine-match winless streak. 

A newcomer going through these numbers would imagine a David versus Goliath battle but there is more to the clash than last season’s highly contrasting statistics. 

Since the end of last season, the Highlanders have improved and had two brilliant cup runs reaching the semi-finals of the Super Cup and Durand Cup. In this period, both NorthEast United FC and Mumbai City FC have recorded five wins each. 

NorthEast United FC also got the better of Mumbai City FC in the Super Cup, so there will be optimism in the Highlanders’ camp that they can leave last season behind them and make a fresh start.

Mumbai City FC’s record in opening games will further give them motivation. The Islanders have lost five of their nine opening fixtures in the ISL. Out of the six away matches they have played as their opening fixture, they have won just once, lost four times and drawn once. 

The Highlanders will have home support behind them in Guwahati on Sunday and the fans are expected to unfurl a big banner in support of the team. Juan Pedro Benali’s side thus will be hoping to draw energy from the supporters to nullify Mumbai City FC’s threat and cause them problems at the back. 

Youngsters like Parthib Gogoi have been in fine form in the Durand Cup having scored four goals during the tournament. Phalguni Singh has looked solid in midfield and Romain Phillipoteaux seems rejuvenated in a new central role under Benali. 

Mumbai City FC are unbeaten in their last four matches against NorthEast United FC and haven’t lost in their last five visits to Guwahati where they have picked up four wins. Recent form makes the Islanders favourites but there is a spring in the step in Benali’s rejuvenated side which could make it a very interesting contest. 

It may be a clash of contrasts on paper but will last year’s rampant League Shield winners get a run for their money against the upbeat Highlanders as the two teams begin a fresh campaign? Guwahati will have the answers come Sunday evening.