NorthEast United FC has always held the bragging rights when it comes to one of the criticisms administered upon the Indian Super League (ISL) " unearthing local talent and providing them crucial opportunities to rub shoulders with foreign footballers, albeit often at the cost of success on the playing field. The Highlanders, however, have been victims of a different drawback of the ISL " lack of stability at the helm and an inability to build on their previous achievements.
Holding the unwanted distinction of being the only club to have not made it into the playoffs in the first four editions, NorthEast United FC rectified the folly when they appointed Eelco Schottorie as their manager last season. The Dutchman, aided by new arrival Bartholomew Ogbeche and midfield dynamo Federico Gallego led the club to their first-ever playoffs " a string of unfortunate injuries eventually derailing their campaign during their second-leg defeat to Bengaluru FC in the semi-finals.
The club, led by Schottorie, was extremely impressive, but as has been the case with all the franchises since the league's inception, NorthEast United will have to rebuild in the upcoming edition, for Schottorie departed for a new challenge with the Kerala Blasters FC, his star pupil Ogbeche in tow.
Losing their top scorer and a manager who finally showed them the ropes of success would be bad enough, but the Highlanders' problems were compounded when Mato Grgic and Rowlin Borges left for Mumbai City FC, putting a big dent in both the defensive and the midfield units of the club.
Robert Jarni was promptly signed to lead NorthEast United's charge, the Croatian known for his stint at the helm of the Croatian U-19 national team. Long-time followers of international football will remember the former wingback as one of the key components of the Croatian senior team that finished third in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Jarni hasn't tasted much success as a manager so far and will obviously need time adjusting to the tropes of a different league in another continent, but the signs have been promising so far.
Ogbeche's loss was of staggering proportions and NorthEast United needed a signing of equal measure to counter it. In comes Asamoah Gyan, a proven goalscorer and not completely past his prime. Having plied his trade in UAE, China, and Turkey in recent years, the three-time World Cupper is still a formidable force. The Highlanders need the former-Sunderland striker to not only fire from all cylinders, but also bring in his leadership mettle to the table. He will be complemented by Argentinian forward Maximiliano Barreiro whose aggressive attitude in the box is well documented. The presence of young Martin Chaves, a pacy forward with an eye for converting half-chances has enabled NorthEast United to assemble a well-rounded offensive unit.
"India is a new challenge for me. It might not matter, but I could open the way for more world-class players. I am only focused on my game. If I don't score, I won't be happy. That is the most important thing for me right now. Everything has been good, since I arrived. There are a lot of young players here, who need experienced seniors, who can tell them that they are good. My teammates are incredible," Gyan told reporters ahead of NorthEast United's game against the Indian senior national team which they drew 1-1.
In spite of the fact that the team pulled off a coup by signing Gyan, a lot of concerns remain elsewhere on the pitch. There is a distinct dearth of experience on the defensive aspect, especially when it comes to the club's Indian contingent. Reagan Singh is the only renowned Indian player in NorthEast United's backline and Jarni will be heavily reliant on the foreign duo of Mislav Komorski and Kai Heerings; any suspension or injury to either of those two could be detrimental for the club's season. Goalkeeper Pawan Kumar's contract renewal is hence a huge boost for Jarni, the 29-year-old's presence alleviating concerns that may have been raised due to TP Rehenesh's departure.
Milan Singh has arrived from Mumbai City FC in a deal that saw the spirited Rowlin Borges head the other way. Fans will certainly hope Singh's latest stint in Guwahati is better than his previous one in 2014 when he was loaned out by Shillong Lajong. Nikhil Kadam and Redeem Tlang, two players suited to Jarni's playing style could be the dark horses for the Highlanders in their quest to repeat last season's results, the latter already being a local fan favourite following his debut goal in the playoffs last season. Whether the midfield steps up to fill the hole left by Borges will decide games for Jarni's side, especially until December when Gallego is expected to return from his injury.
Replicating the highs of the last edition will surely be difficult for the Highlanders " a lot depending on how quickly the new arrivals adapt. Gyan, in particular, will be everyone's best bet and the Ghanaian superstar must succeed for NorthEast United to soar, but a lot rests on the Indian contingent as well, for the Highlanders will only taste victory if the likes of Pawan Kumar, Milan Singh, and Nikhil Kadam play out of their skins.