NorthEast United FC head coach Juan Pedro Benali has set his sights on nothing less than three points when they host Kerala Blasters FC in the Indian Super League (ISL) at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Saturday.

The Highlanders have suddenly found themselves in a challenging situation after managing just one win and a draw in their previous five matches. They currently sit at the 11th position in the points table with 20 points from 19 games.

However, they are well and truly in contention for the final playoff spot and have their fate in their own hands too. They sit four points behind sixth-placed Chennaiyin FC but have a game in hand, and three wins in their remaining three matches would take them to their desired playoffs.

Benali believes that given the minimal differences between the teams in the bottom half of the table, securing a victory could completely alter the current scenario.

“Well, I always say the most important thing for us is the next game. (If we see) the position of the league table, we need to see (till) the last game. Now, as you see, from us to the sixth position, it’s (the gap) very narrow. You win one game, you’re there. The most important thing is to win, not to drop points and not to make mistakes,” Benali stated in the pre-match press conference.

The Spaniard also emphasizes the mistakes they have made during the course of the season, leading to dropping points from winning positions. He believes that if they had performed a bit better in those games, they would have a better position in the table right now.

“Yesterday morning, I was watching all the goals scored against us, and I think we dropped around 17 or 19 points due to small mistakes. If we had only secured seven of those points, we would have been in a comfortable position for the playoffs. However, at the same time, we are working very hard. The players are giving their all and working tirelessly. We deserve to be there, not more, not less than the others. We need to win our games, and it depends on us,” he said.

Out of the three remaining matches, two pit them against the top five teams: Kerala Blasters FC and Odisha FC. The third match is against Chennaiyin FC, who are directly competing with them for the playoff spot.

Benali emphasizes that while every match holds significance, the upcoming game against the Blasters is the most crucial. Securing a win would not only bolster their confidence but also exert pressure on the other teams.

“It’s a matter of details in the end. The most important thing is to win this game. Winning this game, you put pressure on the other teams. And the team which is not relaxed is under pressure and will make a lot of mistakes. This is why it’s very important for us to win this game. If we win this game and we get a good result in Chennai, then we are in. But the most important and the most difficult game is this one," he opined.

NorthEast United FC striker Tomi Juric made an instant impact at the club upon joining them in the winter transfer window. He netted five goals in four appearances for the side; however, an injury suffered against FC Goa has kept him sidelined. His absence was keenly felt as the team could only secure a point in three matches played without him.

The head coach offered the latest update on his injury status and the likelihood of him featuring against Kerala Blasters FC.

“The last test will be tomorrow morning. Then we will be deciding. Also, we will take feedback from the player; if he can play or not. Currently, the chances of him playing are 50-50 we’re not totally sure that he can play tomorrow, Benali shared.

Looking forward to the upcoming three matches: Defender Asheer Akhtar

Defender Asheer Akhtar joined the head coach at the pre-match press conference. The centre-back has had a commendable season, featuring in 17 matches and contributing significantly to both defensive solidity and attacking set pieces.

He has registered 15 interceptions, 15 blocks, and has won 54 duels. Moreover, he has notched one goal and provided an assist.

Akhtar shared insights into his performance thus far and discussed their preparation for the upcoming matches.

“So far it has been quite good for me because I got to play many matches. Individually too, as the coaches said, I have improved. But there is a long way to go. There are some areas where I still have to improve. Until now, it has been good. Now we are looking forward to the upcoming three matches, which is very important,” Akhtar commented.