ISL 2018-19: NorthEast United get it all right and hope for maiden entry into playoffs
Success that comes after long waits are always tasteful. This has been the tale for the 8 states of NorthEast India this ISL season, as their own club NorthEast United is set to rewrite history by making their first semi-final berth of the league.
NorthEast United started their ISL journey as one of the fan favourite squads in the league. The 2014 season saw 'The Highlanders' have an average attendance of above 28000. But the team failed to convert its support to good use, as Ricki Herbert and men couldn't get past the last position on the table. The season was a disappointment altogether with just 3 wins from 14 games.
The two seasons that followed were comparatively better for NEUFC. The club held the 5th position in 2015 and 2016, under César Farías and Nelo Vingada respectively. Both the editions were competitive for the club, as they missed the knockout phases by 2 points only. However, three seasons without qualifying for the playoffs had an impact on them in terms of match attendance.
Things took a major redirection in the 2017-18 season, when Joao Deus took his reign at the Highland. The Portuguese man held the spot for 2 months, before being sacked to be replaced by Avram Grant. However, a partial season was not enough for the former Chelsea manager to prove his worth in India. NorthEast finished at the 10th spot, being at the bottom of the ISL table at the end of a season for the second time.
The 2017-18 season was a black mark for the club, that might not vanish anytime soon. From one of the most supported teams in ISL, NEUFC dropped to a 'fan-less' team with a game being played with only 1,121 spectators. All these, along with the discontent of few players levied huge pressure on the management.
The club owned by Bollywood star John Abraham had heaps of work to do before the start of the current season. At the present scenario, it has to be admitted that the hard work has seen good result. After 12 matches, the team is 4th on the points table with 20 points from 5 wins.
A New Manager - Eelco Schattorie
The season started for NorthEast United with a cloud of doubt. Eelco Schattorie was given a promotion to the head coach position after being the assistant to Avram Grant in the previous season. The 47-year old was a gamble to the position in a do-or-die situation for the team. Schattorie who spent most of his managerial days in and around UAE had the experience of coaching United Sports Club and East Bengal in Kolkata, a few years back. This short span has helped him frame the plans for the Indian league. A plan, that has worked out well so far.
The manager has brought quality players under the NorthEast roof - both domestic and foreign. Rowllin Borges, who dropped his performances after the initial impressions in the NEUFC outfit, was once again made a hero. The 26-year old is now offered a free role in Schattorie's midfield. Reagan Singh and Redeem Tlang are all young guns who have shined under the new coach.
Without a doubt, irrespective of the team's finish, Eelco Schattorie must be praised for his sensible use of the young and competent squad throughout the season.
Bartholomew Ogbeche - Federico Gallego
Goal scoring has been a major woe for the Highlanders right from the beginning. In the 2017 season, NEUFC scored 12 goals and conceded 27. 18 goals in 2015 has been the season when the team scored the most goals. However, with 6 fixtures yet to be played, NorthEast is sure to cross this mark as the team has already scored 16 goals.
Hitting the net has been the biggest change this season for the club and the major pillars behind this feat are Bartholomew Ogbeche and Federico Gallego. The former has scored 9 goals and is second on the top-goal scorers' list this season. All of the French striker's goals have come at crucial moments including the one sole assist provided from his boot. Gallego too has been handy in creating chances and contributing in attack with 3 goals and 5 assists.
Schattorie's new attacking strategies with these two as the executors have become the life saver for NorthEast United.
A Good Start to the Season
NorthEast United has been a team with a curse in the first 5 matches of the season. In 2014, the team gathered 8 points from the opening 5 games. In 2015, it dropped to 6 and in 2016, the points reached a high of 10. The season under new Kerala Blasters manager Nelo Vingada saw the Highlanders win 3 of their opening matches and drew one.
This is one good thing for the team to remember about the current season. From the first 5 games, NorthEast United collected 11 points from three wins and two draws. It has been the first time when NEUFC crossed the initial phase without a defeat. Keeping aside the 5-1 lose to FC Goa, things have been steady on most nights, even when they lost to Mumbai City, 1-0.
Summing up, it has been a good or great start to the season for NorthEast under Eelco.
Even after a great beginning, NEUFC was not good enough to collect all the 3 points on a few occasions. This has made them drop to the 4th position when the league is dispersed for the long-break. With 20 points on board, NorthEast are levelled with FC Goa on the table, falling behind by goal difference. However, a greater threat is sensing around from Jamshedpur FC, 5th on the table with 19 points.
A fact giving the NorthEast fans good hopes are their upcoming fixtures. Out of the 6 games to be played, 4 are against teams lower than them on points. Away games against Mumbai City and Bengaluru FC will have to be approached with great care. If the attack led by Ogbeche can gather at least 14 points from the 6 matches, the 'high lands' would first time be keen for the ISL playoffs.
If the team can continue their good runs and not disappoint in the advantageous matches, fans would have a lot to cheer about this season, including an aim for the finals.