Under the guidance of Eelco Schattorie, NorthEast United FC qualified for Indian Super League playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Scahttorie, who managed East Bengal in the I-league in 2015, has taken the club which finished at the bottom of the table in the 2017-18 season, with only 12 points on the board, to a commendable fourth this season.
NorthEast’s qualification came on the back of a strong away form as opposed to its home form. Its 17 points on the road is the highest among the 10 teams in the league which would hold the side in good stead going into the playoffs.
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However, it managed only 12 points out of a possible 27 points at home. Only ten of the Highlanders' 22 goals this season came at home and they won only two out of their nine matches at the Indira Gandhi International Stadium. Their six draws at home made qualification a more difficult task than it should have been.
The club started with a 2-2 draw against the high-flying FC goa in its opening match before it sneaked in a last-gasp 1-0 win over the dogged ATK in an away encounter. It was its next encounter at the home of the defending champion Chennaiyin FC which made people sit up and take note of the match-winner in its ranks, Bartholomew Ogbeche. Chennaiyin went 2-0 up inside 15 minutes but NorthEast mounted a comeback with a brilliant Ogbeche hat-trick to win the game 4-3.
Another impressive aspect of NorthEast’s finish in the top four is the fact that it had only had four different goal-scorers — three foreigners and one Indian. To put this into perspective, all other playoff opponents - Bengaluru FC (10), goa (8), Mumbai City FC (7) - had more players chipping in with goals. Attacking players Ogbeche (12), Federico Gallego (4), Juan Cruz Mascia (2) and midfielder Rowllin Borgess (4) have been the source of NorthEast’s goals.
Northeast will also be heading into the playoffs with the tightest defence in the league, which conceded 18 goals in 18 matches.
Schattorie’s possession-based football mixed with pragmatism has made the Highlanders a tough side to beat this season. Qualification seemed to be slipping away from its hands after a four-match winless run heading into the international break, but it bounced back with a 1-0 win over Chennaiyin at home in January to get back on track.
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A clinical 2-0 win over Mumbai City with goals from Borges and Ogbeche looked to have sealed its playoff place but a 1-1 draw at home against FC Pune City meant it had to wait longer. When Chennaiyin held another playoff contender Jamshedpur FC to a draw, a semifinal spot was confirmed for the Highlanders.
Player to watch out for
Ogbeche’s 12 goals have been instrumental in NorthEast’s progress. The Nigerian has come in and adapted quickly to Indian football impressing with pace, power and predatory finishing. His 10-minute hat-trick against Chennaiyin will go down as one of the most memorable performances in ISL history. His combination with attacking midfielder Gallego will make the duo a dangerous prospect to come up against on their day.
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