Before the start of the season the Highlanders’ defence had several question marks over it but has stood the test of time.
NorthEast United FC coach Eelco Schattorie could not resist taking a dig at all those who had wondered how they would survive in the Hero Indian Super League.
NorthEast United qualified for the play-offs for the first time in ISL history. They were the only team from the original eight clubs who had not finished among the top four. But this season, Schattorie proved everyone wrong by steering the team to the play-offs.
That he did it with a limited budget and a team full of ‘not-so-glamorous’ names was significant. Of course, there was the brilliance of attacking midfielder Federico Gallego and striker Bartholomew Ogbeche with the duo performing consistently throughout the league. But the most striking aspect of NorthEast’s qualification has been their defensive resilience.
“Before the start of the season, there were comments that NorthEast have a very weak defence, but we have conceded the least goals,” said Schattorie.
Schattorie’s side have the best defensive record in the league this time around with just 18 goals conceded in as many games. And five of them came in a game against FC Goa where they had run rampant.
Given the kind of personnel they have had in defence and the injury concerns, the achievement is even more astonishing. Initially, Mislav Komorski and Mato Grgic played a huge part with the Croatian defenders forming an excellent partnership in central defence. But the rest of the defensive personnel would not have inspired much confidence.
Reagan Singh, Robert Lalthlamuana and Keegan Pereira were all coming after average campaigns. Provat Lakra was playing his first ISL season. But the full-backs gave a solid account of themselves. Pawan Kumar and Gurwinder Singh were the other options in central defence. But while Pawan has barely played in the top division in the last few years, Gurwinder’s stock had come down considerably, especially after East Bengal let him go last season.
Schattorie’s side would have been wondering what to do next when Komorski was ruled out for the season with an injury. But Gurwinder has since filled that void.
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Now, there is another defensive problem for the play-offs. Gurwinder was sent off in the concluding league clash against Kerala Blasters FC, leaving Schattorie with plenty to think ahead of the semi-final battle against Bengaluru FC.
“With Gurwinder Singh getting suspended, that’s going to be something we have to assess and look into,” admitted assistant coach Shaun Ontong.
Against Kerala Blasters, NorthEast defence gave another inspiring performance, keeping a clean sheet despite having a player sent off early in the game.
“We are so proud of the performance, especially defensively. I thought we were outstanding. The effort was what got us the point,” said Ontong.
Despite the early injury and now Gurwinder’s suspension, maybe, just like the entire season, NorthEast will again find a way to strengthen their defence in the semi-finals.