NorthEast United cracked the playoffs puzzle last season, reaching their first-ever semi-final in five seasons of the Indian Super League.
Led by Dutch manager Eelco Schattorie, the Guwahati-based side finished fourth in the league phase before losing a tightly-contested semi-final against eventual winners Bengaluru FC.
In the previous years, NorthEast United were the league’s underachievers. Despite having phases of good performance, the Highlanders had failed to qualify for the semi-finals, finishing just a place below the qualification spots on two out of the first four seasons.
Things finally came together under Schattorie’s management, but with the manager going to Kerala Blasters and the squad seeing a host of changes, it remains to be seen if NorthEast United are able to reach the semi-finals for the second straight season.
What’s changed for 2019-’20 season?
Arrivals: Goalkeepers: Soram Anganba, Subhashish Roy Chowdhury; Defenders: Kai Heerings, Nim Dorjee, Rakesh Pradhan, Wayne Vaz; Midfielders: Ninthoi Meetei, Milan Singh, Lalengmawia; Forwards: Alfred Lalroutsang, Maximiliano Barreiro, Martin Chaves, Asamoah Gyan
Departures: Goalkeepers: TP Rehenesh, Gurmeet Singh; Defenders: Janeiler Rivas, Keegan Pereira, Mato Grgic, Robert Lalthlamuana; Midfielders: Rowllin Borges, Seityasen Singh, Rupert Nongrum; Forwards: Bartholomew Ogbeche, Juan Cruz Mascia
Contributing to the Highlanders’ resurgence last season was Nigerian striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, who netted 12 times for the side. The team also boasted a strong spine consisting of the centre-back pairing of Mislav Komorski and Mato Grgic, central midfield combination of Jose Leudo, Rowllin Borges, and an attack boasting of Ogbeche and Federico Gallego.
However, heading into the new season, NorthEast United will be without three of those key players. Ogbeche followed coach Schattorie to Kerala Blasters while Borges and Grgic joined Mumbai City FC.
Also missing from the squad are goalkeeper TP Rehenesh, left-back Robert Lalthlamuana and striker Juan Cruz Mascia who scored vital goals for the team coming off the bench that included a late winner against Bengaluru FC in the semi-final first leg.
On paper, the Highlanders have done a decent job of replacing the players that have departed with Kai Heerings joining from Eredivisie side Fortune Sittard. He would be expected to slot in alongside Komrski in central defence. For the other defensive spot, NorthEast will have to put their faith on players like Reagen Singh and Shouvik Ghosh who were mostly on the periphery before.
In midfield, Milan Singh is a straight replacement for Borges, although he may lack the attacking qualities that the Goan brought to the table. Redeem Tlang and Lalthathanga Khawlhring will be expected to build on a fine season on the flanks and provide more for the Highlanders with a season’s experience under their belt.
However, the biggest focus will be on star recruit Asamoah Gyan, who comes in with a massive reputation of scoring goals. Still just 31, Ghana’s star man at the 2010 World Cup will be expected to fill the void left by Ogbeche’s departure.
NorthEast United have a strong core of foreign players that could form the new spine of the team after the prominent departures. Led by the experienced Gyan, the overseas recruits would be tasked with providing leadership to the Indian contingent.
Gallego and Gyan have the potential to complement each other and form a lethal partnership upfront with the likes of Leudo, Heerings and Komorski providing stability at the back. Martin Chaves offers a good alternative from the bench.
NorthEast United’s Indian contingent isn’t the strongest. It is a mix of fairly average players and a few young, unproven ones. With the limit on foreign players, the Indians would have to play in key positions, especially in midfield, and their performance could make a big difference. At least on paper, the Highlanders’ Indian contingent doesn’t inspire great deal of confidence at present.
Coach’s profile: Robert Jarni
Jarni had a great playing career featuring for clubs like Real Madrid and Juventus. He also made 81 appearances for the Croatian national team. However, his managerial career has failed to hit the same heights with his most high-profile coaching assignment being the Croatian U-19 side.
Jarni is a fan of possession-based football but isn’t averse to using a direct style of attack. With Gyan available upfront, expect Jarni to mix it up and tailor his strategy as per the opposition.
Player to watch out for: Redeem Tlang
Tlang’s place in the team was questioned by many fans last season until he repaid the coach’s faith in him with a cracking goal in the semi-final against Bengaluru Fc last season. He was energetic on the flanks and his pace caused the eventual champions loads of problems.
The 24-year-old is comfortable on the ball and also possesses a bag of tricks up his sleeve making him a key man in Jarni’s technical style of football. The NorthEast United faithful would be hoping to see more goals from the Shillong-born winger
Goalkeepers: Pawan Kumar, Soiram Poirei, Subhashish Rou Chowdhury
Defenders: Kai Heerings, Reagen Singh, Mislav Komorski, Nim Dorjee, Provat Lakra, Pawan Kumar, Rakesh Pradhan Shouvik Ghosh, Wayne Vaz
Midfielders: Alfred Lalroutsang, Jose Leudo, Ninthoi, Lalengmawia, Lalrempuia Fanai, Lalthathanga Khawlhring, Milan Singh, Nikhil Kadam, Panangiotis Triadis, Redeem Tlang,
Forwards: Asamoah Gyan, Martin Chaves, Maximiliano Barreiro