If someone had said NEROCA hosting Minerva Punjab in Imphal on January 27 would be a top-of-the-table I-League clash ahead of the current season, not many would have taken that forecast seriously.
Minerva have been the season's most consistent team -- their seven wins and 22 points from nine matches taking them to the top of the points table -- while NEROCA have just two defeats and 21 points from 11 games.
Their success lies in one common factor: familiarity among players.
At first glance it seems they have followed different strategies: NEROCA have provided a platform for several Manipuri players -- goalkeeper Lalit Thapa, defenders Gouramangi Singh, Saran Singh, Govin Singh, and strikers Subash Singh and Sushil Kumar Singh -- who have played in top clubs across the country to come together in their home state for the first time. And Minerva have relied more on products of the club's own academy.
What has clicked in both cases is familiarity, with Minerva players knowing each other's game better than most other teams, while NEROCA's experienced players know what it takes to do well in different parts of the country and on the varying playing surfaces in different cities. This season, I-League teams have been allowed to register six foreign players as opposed to four, but Minerva and NEROCA have both resisted the temptation to build their squads around foreigners.
In a season of churn for the I-League, running concurrently with the ISL, big teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and even defending champions Aizawl FC have found it difficult to find their best sides.
Minerva and NEROCA, by contrast, have both identified their best players, foreigners in particular, and stuck with them through the season. For Minerva, five players have started all their matches -- goalkeeper Rakshit Dagar, left-back Abhishek Ambekar, defensive midfielder and captain Kassim Aidara from Senegal, Bhutanese winger Chencho Gyeltshen and striker Guy Dano from Ivory Coast -- and each of them has had a big influence. When speaking to ESPN earlier this season, owner Ranjit Bajaj had simply put it down to adequate time to prepare for this season -- they had been inducted into their debut season in 2016-17 at the last moment.
NEROCA too have had four foreigners out of five regular starters in their matches -- defender Kallon Kiatamba of Liberia, Australian defensive midfielder Aryn Williams, Haitian attacking midfielder Fabien Vorbe and striker Felix Chidi from Nigeria. While defender Ngasepam Tondonba has also started every game, attackers Subash and Yumnam Gopi have only missed out on one game apiece. The crux of the team has been their Manipuri contingent, most of whom have won titles, represented India at the highest levels but never with their home state. This would have been a great motivation for someone like Gouramangi, who had appeared in all previous ISLs and is now also taking his coaching licences, but has done on the pitch to make NEROCA a compact team in defence. In terms of local connect, NEROCA are replicating the Aizawl fairy tale of last season, and we all know how that ended.
Minerva, though, bring some good form with them into this game, having won three away games in a row since losing their last game of 2017 on December 27 in Aizawl. Even if they lose, they will still have two games in hand over NEROCA -- for whom Saturday's match is a virtual must-win.
Even a point will be a bonus for Minerva. A win could make this I-League title theirs to lose over the next month and a half.