So the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season is finally behind us. Mumbai City FC won both the League Shield as well as the ISL trophy and will now be representing India in the AFC Champions League (ACL) next season. Before that happens, FC Goa will be playing in the ACL this season having become the first Indian club to qualify for Asia's premier continental league following their Shield victory in the 2019-20 campaign.
Then there's ATK Mohun Bagan who will play in the AFC Cup this season because the erstwhile ATK won the ISL last term. Ironically, the Mariners will be playing in the same competition next season as well since they finished second in the league stages in the recently finished campaign. So where does NorthEast United come into the picture in all of this?
The Highlanders gave a great account of themselves this season, finishing third in the points table behind Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan. Now, if the Green and Maroons go all the way in the AFC Cup scheduled for later this year, they will become the second team besides Mumbai City to qualify for the ACL next season. In that case, NorthEast United will automatically qualify for next season's AFC Cup by virtue of their league position, just like how Bengaluru FC will be playing in the AFC Cup qualifying rounds this season.
While this may seem like a long shot, one must remember that Indian clubs have a more than respectable record in the AFC Cup in recent years. Since 2010, Churchill Brothers, Dempo SC, Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan have all progressed to the last-16 stage of the competition whereas East Bengal bowed out in the semifinal in 2013. However, it is Bengaluru FC who take the cake with their cup run in 2016 when they reached the final before losing narrowly against Iraqi club Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.
So it is definitely not improbable that a strong ATK Mohun Bagan outfit will do well in the AFC Cup this season and maybe even go on and win it. At least that is what the entire north-east will be praying for.