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ISL 2016 Preview: NorthEast United vs Chennaiyin FC - Defending champions look to finally get the better of bogey team

NorthEast United welcome Chennaiyin FC to Guwahati, the scenic capital city of Assam, as the Indian Super League (ISL) 2016 table toppers ready themselves to thwart the challenge posed by the defending champions.

The Highlanders taking on the Machans is a tie that seldom swings towards the side of the southerners, as Chennaiyin have picked up just one solitary point to show from the four times the two sides have met. Last season, John Abraham's men pulled the double over their Thursday's opponents.

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This same fixture last year was one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament, where the crowd was treated to a 2-0 win for the home side with the added bonus of two penalties given against the visitors. Harmanjot Khabra was given the marching orders for dissent, before their head coach Marco Materazzi went into a tirade after the game tearing into the officiating.

While it might be folly to expect such levels of drama again, what might not be folly would be to expect entertainment on the pitch as the resurgent Chennaiyin are stepping into the territory of an ebullient NorthEast United.

The side co-owned by John Abraham's co-star in Dostana, Abhishek Bachchan, started their campaign on the road against Atletico de Kolkata where they could only draw 2-2, before committing harakiri at home as Delhi Dynamos tore them apart winning 3-1. This prompted their gaffer Materazzi to rethink and out stepped his side to face FC Goa in their third game with six changes, where even captain Bernard Mendy couldn't prevent his head from rolling!

While initially it appeared that the Italian World Cup winner was throwing his toys out of the pram, all critics were silenced as Chennaiyin delivered a controlled performance where they outclassed and oufought Zico's men, winning 2-0.

As a comparison, NorthEast United, whose head coach Nelo 'the Professor' Vingada is only five games old in the ISL, have looked stable on and off the pitch and no such dramatic rethink has been required from the former Benfica assistant as his team have been hard to beat.

In spite of their blip against Mumbai City, Vingada has instilled in his boys a distinct hunger to win, and led by the impressive triumvirate of Katsumi Yusa, Emiliano Alfaro and Nicolas Velez, they are improving with every game. It hasn't been all flashy and zazzy though as the grit and determination was seen in their gutsy 1-0 win against FC Pune City where they went down to 10 men in the first half itself, and in their fight to salvage an away point in the 1-1 draw against Delhi.

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The mercurial Alfaro is playing like a man possessed and Chennaiyin's center halves will have their task cut out when the sides meet. The home side is expected to line-up in a familiar 4-2-3-1 spearheaded by the Uruguayan, with Yusa, Velez and Halicharan Narzary in support.

Rowllin Borges, who has been one of the standout performers in the league without attracting too much attention, will continue being the workhorse of the team, allowing the attackers to flourish, with Romaric supporting him in the heart of midfield.

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The rearguard is expected to remain the same as well, with Subrata Paul guarded by Didier Zokora and Gustavo Lazzaretti in the centre and Shouvik Ghosh and Reagan Singh on the sides.

As for Chennaiyin, the tinkered lineup that did the job for them is expected to not see more tinkering given the level of cohesion and control they showed against Goa.

They could line-up in a 4-3-3 with goalkeeper Karanjit Singh starting again in goal ahead of Duwayne Kerr, with Mehrajuddin Wadoo, Eli Sabia, John Arne Riise and Jerry Lalrinzuala ahead of him.

Manuele Blasi will be sitting the deepest in the three-man midfield, mopping up opposition attacks as Hans Mulder and Raphael Augusto get more leeway to contribute higher up the pitch. Jayesh Rane and Baljit Sahni will work the wings as Davide Succi will head the attack and aim to break his duck in the ISL so far. Thoi Singh could start in place of Baljit if he has shrugged off his ankle injury.

NorthEast will look to get back to winning ways against their favourite opponents in the ISL, while the message from Materazzi would be simple - go and get three points.

Kick-off is at 7PM IST.