With their 2-0 victory over Kerala Blasters on Friday, NorthEast United earned qualification for the Indian Super League (ISL) semifinal playoffs for only the second time in their history. The Highlanders, who had just 12 points from 11 games when Gerard Nus was relieved of his duties, have since picked up 21 from their final nine games. What makes their qualification even more impressive is that under Khalid Jamil, they have become one of the most entertaining sides in the league and play with the kind of freedom that was a characteristic trait of another Khalid Jamil side.
In 2016-17, when the Mumbaikar guided Aizawl FC to their maiden I-League title, the entire footballing community sat up and took notice. Now, when he has the entire country fawning over him once again for being the first Indian head coach to take an ISL team into the semis, one can’t help but draw parallels between the two campaigns.
To start off, both the sides were not given any chance by experts ahead of the start of their respective seasons owing to their relative inexperience and limited spending power. While Aizawl were initially set to be relegated in the previous season before the joint-pullout of the Goan clubs handed them a lifeline, NorthEast United’s lack of notable Indian players this term had many considering them as also-rans even before the season started. However, it is the Indian contingent that ended up being the deciding factor on both occasions.
Back at Aizawl, Jamil had roped in the likes of Ashutosh Mehta, Jayesh Rane, Lalruatthara, Albino Gomes and Zohmingliana Ralte, all of whom played stellar roles in their title-winning campaign. For NorthEast, Ashutosh Mehta is the common entity but he has been ably supported by VP Suhair, Apuia Ralte, Ninthoi Meetei and the experienced Subhasish Roychowdhury in goal. As far as the foreign players are concerned, Aizawl had Kamo Stephane Bayi, Kingsley Eze and Mahmoud Al Amna in leading roles. Compare that to the Highlanders’ Deshorn Brown, Benjamin Lambot and Luis Machado and you get an idea why Jamil’s physically aggressive approach has worked in both cases but never hindered their offensive play.
Another interesting commonality is the importance of both the sides’ home form. During that memorable season, Aizawl FC notched up eight victories and a draw in their nine home games. Although not as impressive, the Highlanders home form this term has seen them win against Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan, the latter under Jamil, and gather 18 points from 10 games, only behind the Kolkata giants in the home table. This, in a Covid-affected season where they have played all their ‘home’ games at Tilak Maidan.
Last but not the least, the opponents that both teams have had to go past in their respective campaigns make their achievements even more appreciable. While Aizawl had to contend with strong Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Churchill Brothers and Bengaluru FC sides, NorthEast have gone past most of their immediate challengers for the top 4 including Mumbai City (twice), ATK Mohun Bagan and Jamshedpur FC. They have also taken points off SC East Bengal and Kerala Blasters without breaking a sweat, further establishing the fact that this team doesn’t care about the perceived stature of its opponents.
All said and done, the biggest point of similarity between that Aizawl FC side and NorthEast United currently is that their coach has been handed a free reign to implement his ideas in his way. Although there were a few questions raised after the unforeseen sacking of Gerard Nus, the Highlanders management have redeemed themselves by trusting Jamil to do the job which we all know he is capable of. All that remains now is for Apuia and company to continue the good work and lift the trophy on 13th March. After all, it’s not always bad when history repeats itself.