NorthEast United FC head coach Juan Pedro Benali urged his players to focus on their tasks as they take on Punjab FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Thursday.

The Highlanders were stunned by the bottom-placed Hyderabad FC in the previous match, where they squandered a two-goal lead after conceding two quick goals in the span of six minutes, going home with just a point.

After a draw with Hyderabad FC, Benali's team missed a chance to enter the playoff zone and is currently placed seventh in the points table with 20 points from 17 matches. The Spaniard reflected on the shortcomings in the previous match, viewing it as a valuable learning experience to progress in the remaining five matches.

“After we scored the two (goals), we disrespected the opponent (Hyderabad FC). We thought that the game was done. We thought it would be easy, (we won’t) need to run and work,” Benali stated in the pre-match press conference.

“We stopped working. Then after we conceded the second goal, we woke up again. We could’ve scored (the winning goal). A lot of things happened in the (opposition half), but we didn’t score,” he added.

“A big lecture to take (from that game). And as I said, this season, we're learning."

Nevertheless, the Highlanders find themselves in a favorable position to reenter the playoffs. A triumph against Punjab FC would elevate them to the sixth position, surpassing Bengaluru FC, who currently hold the sixth spot with a one-point lead.

Benali stands by his players, believing they are fighting for the badge.

“The players are doing the job. They are honest, loyal people, and they are fighting for the name of NorthEast United FC,” Benali opined.

The Spaniard further disclosed plans for alterations in the playing eleven, acknowledging the upcoming challenge against a formidable team that has recently achieved commendable results. Despite recognising the strength of the opposition, Benali expressed confidence in his players' unique qualities and encouraged them to adhere to their roles to attain the desired outcome in the game.

“There will be some changes (in the line-up). Don't know if it's one, two, three or eleven, but we'll try to do our best. We know how Punjab FC plays,” he revealed.

“They're a very good attacking team with three very dangerous players on the front. (They’ve) good defenders. But now, it's our turn. We have very dangerous players too,” he added.

“And if we do our job, we can take the points."

NorthEast United FC has successfully secured the services of goalkeeper Gurmeet Singh on a long-term deal, and he has been actively involved in training over the past few days. However, Benali remains undecided about whether Singh will replace Michu between the goalposts in the upcoming match against Punjab FC.

“We have three goalkeepers. We have Mirshad (Michu), Dipesh (Chauhan) and now Gurmeet (Singh). And tomorrow (Thursday) we will decide who will be playing (in the first XI),” he said.

I have improved a lot under Benali: Jithin MS

Forward Jithin MS joined Benali at the pre-match press conference. The winger has been a consistent performer since the resumption of the league, earning the trust of Benali.

The 26-year-old shared insights into the team's preparation for the crucial game against Punjab FC.

“It's an important match (against Punjab FC). We need three points. That's our aim and we’re preparing well for the game,” he said.

After a demanding previous season, Jithin has displayed substantial improvement in the current season under Benali's guidance, finally unveiling his capabilities in the ISL.

He discussed playing under Benali and expressed his commitment to working hard and contributing to his team's success in the upcoming matches.

“This has been a good season for me. I have learnt a lot of things from the coach and have improved a lot under the coach. But I can do much more (in the upcoming games),” the Kerala-born player expressed.