The Southerners will look to keep their playoffs hopes alive against the lowly Highlanders.

NorthEast United FC welcome Kerala Blasters FC to the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati on Saturday, for what will be the Highlanders’ last home game of Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2017-18. With hopes of reaching the playoffs wiped off, the hosts will be looking to play for pride and their fans, in a bid to give them something to smile about. They will be up against an away side who will throw everything at them to collect the three points and keep their playoff hopes alive.

On the eve of the weekend’s first encounter, the home team’s head coach Avram Grant spoke to the media in the pre-match press conference. When asked how he analyses the current season after taking over from Joao de Deus, he shared, “To be honest, it is one of the strangest seasons I have ever had. You all know what happened in the first half of the season. We tried to improve things that needed to improve. We came out of the situation. From being good in counter, now we dominate and create a lot of chances. What everyone saw in the last three games is typical of what’s happened.”

Grant added, “We controlled the game, but missed chances and rivals scored from one half-attack. For example, against Jamshedpur FC, it wasn’t even an attack, it was a bicycle kick. Sometimes I don’t even want to think about it because I am the first one to know that football is a game of results, but it is also about the performance and we have improved. The results are better than the first half but not like we expected.”

While speaking on how he evaluates the opponents, who will be guided by David James, a former player of his whom he had managed during his managerial stint with Portsmouth, the Israeli replied, “We lost our last game at home, but I must say the fans came and supported the team. They came because this team gives a lot of effort. We were a little bit unlucky because in the last game we were better than them, yet lost, even after winning against some of the top 4-5 teams. As for the game tomorrow, you all know that the coach was my player. Eight years ago, we made it to the final of the (FA) Cup (with Portsmouth). We had an unbelievable achievement. He was the captain. I wish him all the best, but we will try to win the game. It’s good for the future that the team will not give up and show good mentality.”

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Having managed some of the biggest clubs worldwide, the vastly experienced 63-year-old was also asked what his views were on the Hero ISL and the young crop of Indian players. “I see a lot of good things I must say,” he started. “There is passion, dedication and the performances are definitely better than what I saw on TV a couple of years ago. Obviously, there is a scope for improvement but if I compare this to the beginning, then I will definitely say that the base is stronger. On this base, they have to build the rest.”

He further continued, “I see a lot of good potential in India. Some clean players, some who are good with the ball. The players here are fantastic people who want to learn, but I think there’s a lack of academy. Sometimes even big players need to get their basic right and academies are important for that. There are great talents here, much better than I initially thought but here is where foreigners become more important. I think six foreigners are better than five because it will be good for the competition and the development of the young players in India. Of course, you need to choose good foreign players who would also be an example for the others. But with good academies around you, we will see that the league will get better.”

Present from the visitors’ end to address the media was Kerala’s assistant coach Hermann Hreiðarsson, who spoke about how the team’s approach will be against the Highlanders. “First of all, we were in a position where we had to win six games. So, we will have the same approach,” he informed. “We are still in it. We have to go into every game playing for a win. We are happy with our progress. In the last game, we created so many chances, almost 18 shots and 25 crosses. Tomorrow more than focusing on the opponent, we have to focus on ourselves and how the players perform in those 90 minutes.”