ISL Season 7: NorthEast United's hopes rest on foreign firepower

Federico Gallego
Federico Gallego was the only foreigner to be retained by NEUFC. File photo: ISL

For a professional club, player retention is as important as recruitment. NorthEast United FC, a perennial bottom-feeder in the brief history of the Indian Super League (ISL), is one club that failed to pay attention to that unwritten rule. 

Every season, NEUFC have experienced mass movement of players out of the club, and most of the time those players, both domestic and foreign, have ended up plying their trade with other ISL franchises. 

In the inaugural edition, the Guwahati-based side finished last on the points table. The story was not different in the following three seasons. There was a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes in the fifth edition after they put together a compact squad with a bunch of high-profile signings. Guided by Dutch tactician Eelco Schattorie, the Highlanders finished fourth in the league stage and qualified for their first ever playoffs,losing to eventual champions Bengaluru FC.

However, the coach and most of their star performers did not stay for another season. The pain was exacerbated when Schattorie and Nigerian forward Bartholomew Ogbeche, who turned out to be the club's all-time top-scorer in a single season, joined Kerala Blasters. India international Rowllin Borges and Croatian center-back Mato Grgic were snapped up by Mumbai City FC. 

The debilitated team have had to go back to square one in the sixth season. They finished ninth in the 10-team competition with just 14 points from 18 outings, winning only two of them. To add to their woes, NEUFC conceded 30 goals while scoring 16. It was goalkeeper Subhasish Roy who saved them from humiliation in many matches.

Going into the seventh season, the club, that carry the hopes of eight football-crazy states in the north-eastern corner of India, will be hoping to turn things around. They will kick off the new season by taking on Mumbai City FC on November 21.

Foreign striker-force

After the tumultuous last season, NorthEast United have once again overhauled their squad. 

They have brought in two overseas strikers - Guinean Idrissa Sylla and Ghanaian Kwesi Appiah - to sharpen their attack.

Sylla joins the Highlanders from Zulte Waregem in the Belgian League. He has also played for Anderlecht and K V Oostende in the Belgian league besides turning up for a couple of French clubs. The 29-year-old also had a stint in England with Queens Park Rangers. In his first season itself, he proved his mettle by becoming their top scorer. 

The 30-year-old Appiah is a vastly experienced campaigner, having played for multiple clubs in England and Norway in his 12-year-long career. He has also represented his country in the African Cup of Nations.

A lot will also be expected from Portuguese forward Luis Machado, who proved his credentials as a lethal striker for different sides in Portugal's Primeira Division across six seasons. 

Former Mohun Bagan and Gokulam Kerala FC striker V P Suhair is also a very valuable addition to the squad.

Twenty-seven-year-old Keralite Britto P M, who last played for Mohun Bagan, 19-year-old Ninthoinganba Meetei, a native of Manipur and a member of the national under-20 squad, and 28-year-old Mizo striker Lalkhawpuimawia will be their reserve forwards.

Midfield lacks depth

Uruguayan Federico Gallego, the only foreigner retained by NEUFC, will once again dictate the flow of play at the centre of the pitch. He will team up with Mauritania international Khassa Camara, who plied his trade in France and Greece. The 27-year-old has the ability to play in the attacking or holding positions with equal panache.

Among the Indian midfielders, 22-year-old former Aizawl FC player Rochharzela is an exciting prospect. Known for his blistering pace, the youngster can also be used as a winger. However, NEUFC's midfield line-up, which also consists of Imran Khan, Lalengmawia, Lalrempuia Fanai, and Pragyan Gogoi, seemingly lacks depth.

Plenty of defensive options 

Twenty-six-year-old Australian defender Dylan Fox, who has played top-flight football in Australia and New Zealand, and 33-year-old Belgian central defender Benjamin Lambot will be entrusted with the task of marshaling the defence. 

They have also handpicked Mohun Bagan's I-League winning duo of Ashutosh Mehta and Gurjinder Kumar.  

Throw in the young Indian contingent of Nabin Rabha, Nim Dorjee, Provat Lakra, Rakesh Pradhan, Wayne Vaz, and Malappuram-born Mashoor Shereef, NEUFC definitely have a very impressive bunch of players in their backline. 

A cause for worry

Subhasish, who guarded the net last season, will be the first-choice keeper. The absence of an experienced reserve keeper is a cause for concern for the team management. Young Gurmeet Singh, Nikhil Deka, and Sanjiban Ghosh are the reserves. 

New manager, new hopes 

NEUFC have a history of hiring and firing coaches. Spaniard Gerard Nus is their eighth managerial appointment in six seasons. The 35-year-old replaces Croatian Robert Jarni who was sacked towards the latter half of the previous campaign. Assistant coach Khalid Jamil was in charge for the rest of the season. 

Nus is a UEFA Pro license holder and has a degree in Sport Science. He started his professional career as a coach at Liverpool FC’s academy before being promoted to Rafa Benitez’s first team coaching staff. He was also the assistant coach of the Ghana national team.

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