The mastermind of the biggest upset in the opening round of matches in the Indian Super League (ISL) is just 35 years old. ‘Just’, because he is a manager and not a player.
Gerard Nus, the globe-trotting Spaniard who joined NorthEast United in August is the youngest manager ever in the ISL. And it did not take long for the former Ghana assistant coach, who started his career as the coach of Liverpool’s academy, to make an impact.
NorthEast were the whipping boys of the last ISL season – winning only two out of the 18 matches and conceding twice the number of goals they scored. It was widely expected that they’d be rolled over in their opener by Mumbai City FC, one of the favourites this season who not only have a star-studded squad, but in Sergio Lobera they have a manager who has had success in India and abroad.
But Nus and NorthEast showed they wouldn’t care about reputations. NorthEast played within their limitations but Nus organised them in such a way that Mumbai found it hard to break them despite dominating the first half. A red card to Mumbai playmaker Ahmed Jahouh helped NorthEast’s cause, but the fact that Mumbai did not manage a single shot on target showed how disciplined NorthEast were and the precision with which they executed Nus’s game-plan.
Incredibly, Nus is younger than the player who scripted an improbable comeback over the weekend for FC Goa.
Igor Angulo’s goal-scoring reputation precedes him. He came to India after scoring nearly a hundred goals in the last four years in Poland’s top division. But the Spaniard had to fill the big void left at FC Goa with the departure of Ferran Corominas, one of the finest strikers to have played in India.
Angulo, 36, showed his class in the space of three second-half minutes against Bengaluru FC in the battle of the two title contenders. His goals in the 66th minute – a neat left-footed shot across the goal to beat Gurpreet Singh Sandhu – and the 69th minute – using his chest to score from a close-range – salvaged an otherwise average evening for Goa.
Given that almost one-third of the foreign players and seven out of 11 managers in the ISL this season are from Spain, it is hardly surprising that they had the biggest impact in the opening round. And if first impressions are anything to go by, then a 35-year-old manager and a 36-year-old player will be the ones to watch out for this season.
2-3 weeks to find rhythm
It is also telling that Angulo, one of the oldest players in the league, stood out considering so many of them struggled to last the entire 90 minutes. For a majority of the players, this was the first competitive match since March, and the lack of match practice showed as some of the plays seemed so bizarre that it looked like a PlayStation controller had gone rogue.
That all matches are being played in Goa, where the weather is hot and humid at this time of the year, does not help either. These factors, coupled with the general rustiness, meant the overall play lacked sharpness. While attacking, the players were unable to shift gears or find teammates. All this meant the substitutions managers made were forced because the players got tired and weren’t necessarily tactical.
FC Goa manager Juan Ferrando said it will take around two-to-three weeks to settle into a rhythm. “By then, I hope everybody is ready and enjoy games that have more intensity for the entire 90 minutes,” he said.
Thapa, Brandon best Indians
Amidst the focus on the much-improved foreign signings across all teams, it is easy for an Indian player to go missing. But 22-year-old Anirudh Thapa reminded everyone why he is tipped to be one of the flag bearers of Indian football in the days to come.
Thapa, who has been one of the consistent performers for the last couple of seasons, became the first Indian goal scorer of the season – a stat that matters even now because the Indian players don’t routinely find the back of the net. Thapa looked sharp in Chennaiyin’s 2-1 win over Jamshedpur on Tuesday, and scored after only 47 seconds – a low, right-footed drive from just inside the box to find the bottom right corner.
Thapa’s India teammate Brandon Fernandes was another Indian player who impressed. The FC Goa midfielder did not start the match for FC Goa due to a niggle he carried coming into the season, but his introduction against Bengaluru in the 57th minute turned out to be game-changing as he initiated the moves that led to both Goa goals.
47 – Anirudh Thapa scored Chennaiyin’s first goal of the season, against Jamshedpur on Tuesday, after only 47 seconds. It is the fastest goal in the ISL since Marcelo Leite’s goal for Hyderabad against Odisha on January 15 this year, which came after 37 seconds.
Round 2 fixtures: Nov 25: FC Goa vs Mumbai City; Nov 26: Kerala Blasters vs NorthEast United; Nov 27: SC East Bengal vs ATK Mohun Bagan; Nov 28: Bengaluru vs Hyderabad; Nov 29: Jamshedpur vs Odisha