ISL 2016: Can Didier Zokora help NorthEast United make it past group stage for first time? - Firstpost
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ISL 2016: Can Didier Zokora help NorthEast United make it past group stage for first time?

The third season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is all set to kick off, and there is one team which will feel it needs to justify its massive talent pool and adulation from fans by reaching the latter stages of the tournament. That team is NorthEast United FC.

Interestingly, trends from the last two seasons suggest that the home team for the inaugural match of the season ends up being the champion. In 2014, Atletico de Kolkata played the first match at home against Mumbai City FC, while in the second season, Chennaiyin FC played the inaugural match at home against Atletico de Kolkata. In 2016, NorthEast United kicks off the ISL against Kerala Blasters in Guwahati.

File picture of Didier Zokora. Sportzpics

File picture of Didier Zokora. Sportzpics

Over the summer, the John Abraham-owned side had to appoint two coaches. In May 2016, Sergio Farias was named the coach, but just two months later, he decided to head back to his former club Suphanburi FC of Thailand. After he had departed, the ISL club went ahead and appointed Portuguese manager Nelo Vingada.

This move impressed most, with Vinganda, nicknamed “the Professor”, boasting of plenty of experience. He had taken Saudi Arabia to the 1996 AFC Asian Cup title and helped it qualify for the 1998 World Cup. The 63-year-old has coached for over 35 years, during which he has also served as a technical director of Portuguese side Benfica.

Vinganda's career includes stints in Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, South Korea and China. In fact, he holds a unique distinction of leading Egyptian side Zamalek FC to a title without losing a single match in the season. He had also coached the Portugal U-20 team and finished third in the U-20 World Cup. As an assistant, he won the title twice under acclaimed coach Carlos Queiroz.

For NorthEast, its coach will be a huge source of strength for he has a number of achievements under his belt. He has already spoken about his vision for the team and his desire to bring about a balance in the side. The fact that the club has appointed Francisco Bruto Da Costa, who has previously worked as an assistant coach for India's U-14, U-17 and U-19 national teams, will help in the club being able to utilise his understanding of young Indian footballers.

After scoring the second least number of goals in the first season (11), NorthEast United improved in the second edition in terms of goals scored (18), but it was still evidently an issue in some matches. In nine out of 14 matches, the Highlanders only managed to score one goal. It is no wonder that they have to make amends in this particular department.

Nico Velez joined the side last year and proved to be a valuable player for the franchise, scoring five goals. The forward is a natural goalscorer, and his instincts are visible on the pitch; naturally, he has been retained by the side.

The side also boasts of the services of Lallianzuala Chhangte - perhaps one of the most, if not the most exciting player in India currently. The 19-year-old is highly rated and happens to be a product of Liverpool's youth academy in India. He started his career with DSK Shivajians-Liverpool International Football Academy based in Pune.

He finished his team's debut season in the 2014 U-19 I-League as the top scorer with 16 goals. Unsurprisingly, he received a senior call-up in December 2015 and became the second youngest Indian to represent the nation. Not only that, on his debut against Nepal in the SAFF Championship, the Mizo youngster scored twice, breaking Baichung Bhutia’s 20-year-old record.

Chhangte is very exciting, and it comes as no surprise that NorthEast was keen to utilise such a talent. In spite of being just 19, he should get enough minutes for the side, and hope to make a lasting contribution.

Japanese attacking midfielder Katsumi Yusa has also joined the outfit. The 28-year-old has scored 27 goals for Mohun Bagan in the last three years and has to work his magic for the team, helping his forwards score, and doing the job himself too.

While TP Rehenesh has proved to be an excellent goalkeeper for the side, finishing last season with four clean sheets, only behind Apoula Edel; NorthEast have decided to bring in veteran Indian goalkeeper Subrata Pal from Mumbai City. One of NorthEast’s weaknesses has been the relative inexperience of the side, and it often proves to be a problem. Experience always helps in pressure situations as character and grit have to be demonstrated.

NorthEast’s marquee player for the season would be former Tottenham Hotspur star midfielder Didier Zokora. The Ivory Coast international played for FC Pune City last year, but will be representing the easterners this time around.

NorthEast United is a club with a large fan base. The matches in which the club is involved witness a great environment, every single time, not just at home, but anywhere in the country. Sadly, NorthEast is one of the three teams in the competition to have never gone beyond the group stage. It is time for the team to do justice to the expectations of the football-lovers of an area of the nation which simply adores football.

The Highlanders ended the first season at the bottom of the table as they failed to gather any momentum during the group stage. The second season turned out to be little better for the side as it finished fifth in the table, and missed the semifinal stage by a cruel two points.

The developments over the summer have been encouraging, regarding appointments, the pre-season tour and everything else. Fans would hope that NorthEast’s upward trajectory continues this season and the side can finally manage to be around at the business end of the tournament.

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