I did not give a hope in hell to the Highlanders in last season’s preview. All the news leading upto that campaign was bad. Talk of the academy closing, supporters up in arms, owners looking to sell and a manager publicly stating that he did not have a squad that could compete. It would have taken a very optimistic observer to predict any sort of success for that side.
But succeed they did, and I happily ate humble pie. The franchise entered the playoffs for the first time in their existence, thanks mainly in part to the five victories they achieved in their first eight games. By the time other teams figured out that they could stop NorthEast by marking Bartholomew Ogbeche and Federico Gallego out of games, they had enough points in credit. A poor run from December onwards which brought only two wins in ten meant that they just about sneaked into the top four, but there was no doubting that they belonged there.
Eelco Schattorie forged a team that was high on belief and no little endeavour. They had a very thin squad and were light on established Indian talent but their overseas players delivered throughout the season. Mato Grgić and Mislav Komorski were assured in the heart of defence while José Leudo in the middle of the park was probably the most underrated player in the league. Rowllin Borges’ revival made everyone sit up and take notice but the Colombian next to him did not put a foot wrong all season.
The over-reliance on Ogbeche and Gallego caught up with them in the end. The duo scored sixteen of the twenty four goals scored all season. Only three other players chipped in with goals. Borges had four from central midfield and Juan Mascia contributed three as an impact substitute. Between the three attacking midfielders in Redeem Tlang, Lalthathanga Khawlhring and Nikhil Kadam, they had one goal and one assist.
This is an area that needs improvement this season. Croatian, Robert Jarni has taken over from Schattorie and should be able to further develop the young Indians in the squad, having worked with the Croatian U-19 team over the last couple of years. Ogbeche has followed Schattorie to Kerala and while Gallego remains, he has still not recovered from the horror injury he suffered in the semifinal second-leg in Bengaluru last season. Borges and Grgić have moved to Mumbai while Mascia has returned to South America.
The rest of the squad has mainly stayed intact but just like last season, the foreign players will have to step upto the plate. Komorski has a new partner in Dutchman Kai Heerings. Leudo is a reassuring presence and should lineup alongside Milan Singh in central midfield. Winger Panagiotis Triadis, who saw limited minutes last season remains at the club and will be joined by three new forwards. Martín Cháves and Maximiliano Barreiro are unknown quantities but the Highlanders have pulled out a rabbit from the hat for the second season running by signing Asamoah Gyan. The former Ghanaian national team captain has the pedigree to take the league by storm and if he gets going, NorthEast United could trouble all-comers yet again.