Hope in the Highlands: Why NorthEast United FC's Durand Cup campaign bodes well for their future
Juan Pedro Benali’s side can be proud of their performances in the tournament. They were unbeaten in the group stage, finishing second behind table-toppers FC Goa and then got the better of the Indian Army Football Team in the quarter-final before reaching the last four.
It was heartbreak for Indian Super League (ISL) side NorthEast United FC as they went down to East Bengal FC in the Durand Cup 2023 semi-final on Tuesday. The Highlanders were leading 2-0 until the 76th minute, before East Bengal FC equalised in injury time and triumphed on penalties. Parthib Gogoi’s penalty miss in the shootout proved costly as Nandhakumar Sekar scored the winning penalty for the Red & Golds.
Nonetheless, Juan Pedro Benali’s side can be proud of their performances in the tournament. They were unbeaten in the group stage, finishing second behind table-toppers FC Goa and then got the better of the Indian Army Football Team in the quarter-final before reaching the last four. In the previous edition of the tournament, they were eliminated early on after a fourth-place finish in the group stages.
NorthEast United FC have now reached the semi-finals of the two tournaments they have competed in since the conclusion of the ISL 2022-23 season. Under interim coach Floyd Pinto, NEUFC had previously made it to the last four in the Super Cup. While things are certainly looking up for the Guwahati-based side after a change in management, we highlight their biggest positives from the tournament.
1) Phalguni Singh steps up in midfield
It was a tournament to remember for new signing Phalguni Singh, who was one of the standout players for NorthEast United FC in their journey towards the semi-final.
A creative player with an eye for goal, Singh was a livewire for the Highlanders in midfield. He posed a constant threat to the opposition in and around the box besides creating chances for his teammates. The 28-year-old midfielder netted two goals in the tournament, both which came in the knockout stages.
2) Philippoteaux’s new role
Romain Philippoteaux was deployed on the wings last season, but under Benali, the Frenchman has been entrusted with the role of the central midfielder. With plenty of attacking options for the Highlanders upfront, Philippoteaux started all of NorthEast United FC’s games in the middle of the park. The move certainly benefited the team, with Phillipoteaux offering a creative outlet for the team from midfield.
Known for his technical skills and ability to control the ball, the veteran midfielder provided plenty of service to NorthEast United FC’s forward line. He was also given the licence to push forward under Benali. Philippoteaux thrived in his role, also finding the back of the net on two occasions during the tournament.
3) Juan Pedro Benali’s attacking mantra
It has been a positive start to Benali’s tenure at NorthEast United FC. The Highlanders had a short pre-season going into the Durand Cup after the Spaniard took over, but still managed to produce the results.
Across five games, they have netted 11 goals. NEUFC began their campaign with a thumping 4-0 victory against Shillong Lajong FC, followed by an entertaining 2-2 draw against FC Goa. They concluded the group stage campaign with a 3-1 comeback win against Downtown Heroes FC. On their way to the semi-final, they registered a solid 1-0 victory against Indian Army FT.
While NEUFC have been guilty of conceding, they have scored against every other side they have faced. They have been playing an entertaining brand of football, creating opportunities and scoring goals along the way. The goals have also come from all over the pitch, with six different players being involved. Given by what we have seen so far, the future bodes well for the Highlanders.