The Highlanders are doing decent at the 5th edition of Hero Indian Super League, but the NorthEast United fans are not celebrating as yet. The team has done well so far, enchanting locals and fans around the country. But for a side which is yet to qualify for the play-offs in four previous editions, early celebrations are ill-advised.
Having played six matches so far, NorthEast United FC looks nothing like their predecessors in the tournament’s previous editions. A closer look tells you that the ghosts of the past seem all but banished. The club may be placed fifth on the table as of now, but they are only five points off leaders FC Goa and have a game in hand.
So why then are NorthEast United fans not celebrating?
They’ve seen similar situations before, only for hopes to come crashing down. In 2016, for example, guided by the goal-scoring prowess of Emiliano Alfaro, NorthEast United FC grabbed 10 points from their first five matches but then lost four matches in a row and remained winless in six games to get left behind. There was a late resurgence but a loss against Kerala Blasters FC in the concluding league clash put paid to their chances as they fell two points short of the qualification mark. ATK, who qualified at their expense, went on to win the title.
This time, though, there is a marked difference. With Eelco Schattorie’s influence now spreading, the John Abraham co-owned team has adapted like a duck to water to this edition and continue to swim without running aground.
“For us, I don’t think anyone expected us to be in such a position now given the managers before me. The club, players and staff can be extremely proud of where they are now but again, it is a long road and we will keep fighting for that,” said Schattorie.
A primary reason for the Highlanders’ push up the table has been Bartholomew Ogbeche who is the league’s joint top-scorer. Immense in presence and deceptive with his pace, the 34-year-old has been pivotal to his side’s purple patch, scoring six goals out of the 10 his side have notched so far.
Yet, with him scoring exactly 60 per cent of the team’s goals, you’d begin to wonder if over-reliance on the Nigerian would prove to be an Achilles’ heel for the Dutch coach later in the season.
NorthEast’s discipline all over the pitch has been striking too. They have one of the tightest defences, conceding just seven goals – a record which is second only to Bengaluru FC.
Schattorie has truly reinvigorated the team’s capabilities with a defined structure to his play and smart substitutions.
You don’t often find teams in the ISL able to adapt to multiple formations, nullify the strengths of the opposition and still pull off a result. NorthEast United continue to shift between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2 with relative ease. Their grit and resolve makes them one of the fiercest teams to play against – their exploits (4-3 win) against the floundering ISL champions Chennaiyin FC being a case in point.
The next few matches should provide a clearer picture for NorthEast United fans. But early indications are that, having waited for so long, they may finally have something to celebrate.