Road to semis: Will NorthEast United FC’s rollercoaster season end in a maiden final appearance?
Out of all the semi-finalists in Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2020-21, perhaps NorthEast United FC’s journey to the top-four was the most memorable. The Highlanders had a rollercoaster league campaign that saw them begin well, shocking table-toppers Mumbai City FC in their opener before parting ways with their head coach in January following a slump in form.
However, they became a transformed unit after Khalid Jamil was handed the reins on an interim basis. Under Khalid’s tutelage, the Highlanders went on to complete the double over Mumbai City FC and also beat second-placed ATK Mohun Bagan. Their biggest win in terms of scoreline was a 3-1 triumph over Odisha FC, however, it’s their consistency in the latter half of the league stage that got them to the semis and here’s a closer look at their incredible run.
Matches played: 20, Points: 33, Wins: 8, Draws: 9, Losses: 3, Goals scored: 31, Goals conceded: 25
Clean sheets: 5
Top goal-scorer: Luis Machado (7 goals)
As mentioned above, NorthEast United FC began their campaign with a surprising win against Mumbai City FC before going on a six-match unbeaten that featured two victories and four draws. The Highlanders then suffered their first loss of the campaign against Jamshedpur FC and couldn’t win their next four matches, losing two of them.
This slump in form coupled with an urge for a change in direction led to the club’s decision of parting ways with head coach Gerard Nus and putting Jamil in charge. Jamil’s appointment coincided with the Highlanders going on their best run of results in the season and the players producing some of their best football on the pitch.
The 43-year-old’s ability to galvanise and get the best out of his players has seen NorthEast United FC go unbeaten for 9 games, 10 including the drawn contest which was Nus’ last match in charge. He’s chalked up wins against the top two sides during that run and also held the other semi-finalists FC Goa to a draw. Jamil’s start to life on the sidelines is the best-ever made by an Indian at the helm and NorthEast United FC have been rewarded for showing their faith in him by securing just their second semi-final appearance.
The upturn in Federico Gallego’s form on the pitch halfway through the season was a defining factor in their charge to the top-four. The Uruguayan playmaker has notched four goals as well as six assists this season and is their most creative individual, capable of carving open opposition defences with a moment of brilliance.
Luis Machado, who is their highest scorer with seven goals, has also improved under Jamil towards the latter half of the league stage. He, along with Deshorn Brown, whose found the back of the net five times for the Highlanders since his move from Bengaluru FC in the winter transfer window, has become NorthEast United FC’s biggest goal-threats. Young Lalengmawia is another individual who has shone in midfield for them and scored a stunning strike to well and truly announce his arrival to the big time in the club’s last outing against Kerala Blasters FC.
However, despite the several positives this season, NorthEast United FC won’t be getting too far ahead of themselves knowing fully well that they haven’t won anything yet. The Highlanders, of course, have been in this position before and will remember the agony of what it’s like to come out on the losing end in a semi-final following the 2018-19 defeat to eventual champions Bengaluru FC. They will remember their being ahead from the first leg before suffering a heartbreak in the second. Add ATK Mohun Bagan to that as their opponents in the upcoming semis and the odds do seem slightly stacked against them again. That said, they will be quietly confident in their ability to pull off another upset and will have memories from their win against the Mariners earlier in the season fresh in their minds.