Ahead of the third edition of the ISL, Goal looks at the strengths and weaknesses of John Abraham’s outfit..
Two seasons without any substantial success, the John Abraham-owned team buckle up for yet another campaign in the Indian Super League (ISL). But with a major overhaul and a shuffle from their recruitment policies, is a spot in the last four a possibility?
Just a spot below the cut-off line and two points short, ‘The Highlanders’ had to sulk into oblivion when the semi-finals of ISL 2015 arrived. But it might not have been the best of challenges put up to make it into the business round itself in the first place.
Three opening losses on the trot and NorthEast United were back to where they ended the inaugural season – bottom of the leaderboard. Defeat in six of the fourteen matches along with dropping points at two more games did them no favour as they ended the season with 20 points and a deficit of five goals.
Even marquee signing Simao Sabrosa was not fit in the beginning and he only made his debut in the fourth game, where momentum shifted upwards for the team from the seven sisters. The onus was once again on the youthful talent pool, all but one from the northeastern part of India. Interestingly it was goalkeeper Rehenesh T.P. yet again who was the star domestic performer for them.
Venezuelan manager Cesar Farias and American deputy Gulliermo Sanchez along with Santosh Kashyap got in the right blend of all coaching manuals but in the end, it was a failed campaign for the ever so loyal fans who thronged into the Guwahati stadium each match, making it the second highest attended venue after Kochi.
Despite of all that went through at the club from the first season, Cesar Farias rightly put words into perspective after the end of the campaign, “The aim was to NOT finish at the bottom of the table and we did that. The next aim was to qualify for the semi-finals and we could not do that. We at least surpassed our first target as a team. Next step, next year…”
Camp Location – United Arab Emirates and Assam.
1. 2-1 (L) vs Emirates Football Club;
2. 2-1 (W) vs Al Shabab Select XI;
3. 2-10 (W) vs Nabajyoti Club [Guwahati].
THE MANAGER – NELO VINGADA
The appointment of Nelo Vingada for this season had its fair share of drama when it was actually Brazilian manager Sergio Farias who first put pen to paper and then suddenly left the club to go back to his former employers Suphanburi in Thailand, completing a reign of 53 days and a tally of zero matches.
‘The Professor’ as he is widely regarded, Vingada is a well travelled tactician who has coached the likes of FC Seoul in the Far East to the Moroccan side Wydad Casablanca; his native Portugal U-20 team to the Iranian national team for the Olympics.
NorthEast United’s Sergio Farias joins Suphanburi FC
Vingada was more acclaimed at his time as the assistant in the Iran national team where he joined forces with Carlos Queiroz, the once protégé of Sir Alex Ferguson. He also has had his due amount of success – most notably the Asian Cup with Saudi Arabia some two decades ago. The 63-year-old though has a history of falling outs with the management, all credit to his unusual style and demands.
However, with a points per game average of 1.2 over his 35 years in the industry, John Abraham could not be more assured of the tactical genius of Vingada.
The franchise could only retain six members from their squad last season, including star Argentine striker Nicolas Velez. Robin Gurung and Rehenesh T.P. are now the longest serving members of the team as they’ve been there since the inception. Seityasen Singh, Reagan Singh and Holicharan Narzary came back for their second season with the Highlanders.
NorthEast United started out early, securing the signatures of Nirmal Chettri and Shouvik Ghosh alongwith teenage sensations of the DSK academy, Jerry Mawihmingthanga and second youngest goalscorer for the Indian national team – Lallianzuala Chhangte.
The additions of Indian national team regulars Rowllin Borges and Sumeet Passi with veteran ‘keeper and Arjuna awardee Subrata Paul made the intent very clear from the Highlanders.
Chennaiyin FC’s Mailson Alves along with Maonel Amorim (later released) followed suit, adding in a bit of the Brazilian flavour. Other recruitments from the Samba nation are goalkeeper Wellinton Lima, defender Gustavo Lazaretti and midfielders Wellington Priori and Fabio Neves.
FC Pune City’s Didier Zokora was announced as the marquee with Sanju Pradhan, Andre Bikey, Raju Yumnam and Bruno Arias all going the other way. Fanai Lalrempuia also joined in from the Punekars. Zokora’s compatriot from Ivory Coast, Romaric signed for the club adding much needed cover in midfield.
South America was the place to target as two strikers – Emiliano Alfaro and Sasha Aneff, both from Uruguay joined in to form an formidable attack.
Familiar face for Indian football fans in the form of Katsumi Yusa, the Mohun Bagan deputy skipper joined in along with Salam Ranjan Singh of Bengaluru were the last of the additions to a totally revamped squad. However, the Bengaluru FC defender is sure to miss at least the first six games owing to his involvement in the AFC Cup.
Sashan Aneff and Fabio Neves are sure to miss the rest of the season owing to injuries as NorthEast United will be looking to replace at least one of them before things heat up in the league.
In a major decision to let go of the ‘convention’ to only seek players from their catchment area of the northeastern part of India, the team could well be looking at benefits rather than disappointments. The last two season were plagued with moments of insecurity and inexperience on the pitch but this time around, John Abraham and his management has made sure that there is a spine to lead the team to fourteen league matches and beyond.
One cannot negate the fact of the tremendous home support when it comes to the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Guwahati. The 35,000 seater arena will host the opening ceremony and the curtain raiser of season three of the ISL. It will be looking to serve as the fortress for the team this season. Their four wins out of seven last season will be a benchmark waiting to be surpassed.
Marcelo Bielsa, Sergio Farias and managers who quit soon after joining a club
History suggests that 20 goals a season will surely lead a team into the semi-finals and that is what exactly the additions of Passi and Alfaro with Velez will try to achieve. Last season, apart from Velez there was no considerable threat to the opposition defenders and with 18 in last season, NorthEast United just need a good push ahead.
Although the addition of ISL 2015 winner Mailson Alves helps to achieve a sense of calm at the back, his partner Gustavo Lazaretti is still an unknown quantity in the ISL. Nirmal Chettri returns to football after a gap of one year from injury and the amount of minutes he can give in is still a lingering doubt.
The letting off of Aiborlang Khongjee to Mumbai City FC could well haunt them at some point as they will not like a repeat of 23 goals conceded last season yet again. Replacements for the defensive departures are not that strong compared to previous term where they had Carlos Lopez and Andre Bikey.
Chhangte, Passi and Jerry might be well talked of in the domestic circuit but minutes on the field has still been limited. Rowllin Borges, the India regular might struggle to find pace as he becomes the second Goan in a long time to play for a northeastern club after Godwin Franco at Royal Wahingdoh.
Zokora was one of the best defensive midfielders in the ISL last season with FC Pune City. He is adept at breaking play and also has the ability to send in a through-pass to split open the opposition defence. The former Tottenham and Sevilla midfielder is a tough tackler and his experience in the middle of the park shall certainly come in handy for the north eastern club.
This Argentine already had created some buzz before last season started and there has been no sense of lost vigour on the fan’s part when they hear the name Nico Velez. Fast paced, two footed and great inside the box are attributes which make the 26-year-old an asset to the team’s attack. Five goals in 2015 made him the most chanted name at the IGA Stadium in Guwahti. Expect him to be the apex of all things exciting at NorthEast United this season as well.
The ‘Spiderman’ who finally achieved national recognition in the form of an Arjuna Award this year, Subrata Paul needs no introduction. An assured presence between the sticks, the 29-year-old has single-handedly won international tournaments for India in the past. He is expected to be the first name on the team sheet.
SPECIAL MENTION: Katsumi Yusa – The Japanese playmaker has vast experience of Indian conditions with his time at Mohun Bagan and is a natural leader on the pitch. Can provide the creativity thrust at any given point of time in the game.
Goalkeepers: Subrata Paul, Rehenesh T.P, Wellington Lima;
Defenders: Mailson Alves, Gustavo Lazaretti, Reagan Singh, Robin Gurung, Nirmal Chettri, Salam Ranjan Singh, Shouvik Ghosh;
Midfielders: Didier Zokora (Marquee), Romaric, Wellington Priori, Katsumi Yusa, Fabio Neves Florentino [injured], Rowllin Borges, Seityasen Singh, Fanai Lalrempuia, Jerry Mawihmingthanga;
Forwards: Nicolas Velez, Emiliano Alfaro, Sasha Aneff [injured], Halicharan Narzary, Sumeet Passi, Lallianzuala Chhangte.