A hundred games of the 2020-21 Indian Super League season have flown by and they’ve provided the ebbs and flows that have become synonymous with the competition. Additionally, in sync with previous campaigns, there are still plenty of narratives awaiting a conclusion, whether it be the battle for the lone AFC Champions League spot or the race for the playoffs.
A few weeks ago, a sense of inevitability surrounded Mumbai City FC finishing at the top of the pile, not just because they seemed imperious but also because ATK Mohun Bagan — their closest competitors, were seemingly running out of steam.
Since then, though, both teams have charted contrasting trajectories. While ATK Mohun Bagan have regained their mojo, the Islanders have just lost their verve a touch, meaning that the latter, despite casting themselves as frontrunners for the majority of the tournament, are now playing catch-up.
Elsewhere, Bengaluru FC, FC Goa, Hyderabad FC and NorthEast United FC still have an opportunity to enroll themselves for the playoffs, thereby increasing the entertainment quotient of the ISL considerably.
Jamshedpur FC, on the other hand, despite being in a position to reach the 27-point mark, need a lot of things to turn out favourably, meaning that they only find themselves in the play-off conversation mathematically. Also, they have an inferior head-to-head record against FC Goa and are level on that count with NorthEast United FC and Hyderabad FC.
Subsequently, if the Red Miners are to finish in the top four, they would require to better the Nizams and the Highlanders’ Goal Difference, which stands at 8 and 3, respectively. Jamshedpur FC meanwhile, currently boast a GD of (-3) — something that further diminishes the likelihood of them qualifying.
Thus, with only 10 league fixtures remaining, the time could perhaps be ripe to delve a little deeper and decipher where the teams might finish, come 28th February. Though that is an arduous task in itself, each team has provided plenty of evidence to suggest how the final chapter of their ISL 2020-21 story could be scripted.
Can NorthEast United FC translate their potential into something tangible?
For the past few seasons, NorthEast United have always seemed a team capable of jumping up a grade and into the highest echelon of Indian football. The only problem, however, is that they’ve never been able to do so frequently.
Since the inception of the ISL, the Highlanders have made the top four only once — in 2018-19 when they lost to eventual champions Bengaluru FC. Prior to that, they had endured campaigns wherein they had portrayed the ability to go deep into the tournament. However, those episodes were almost always followed by spells of inconsistency.
Even in 2020-21, there were enough signs that hinted NorthEast United FC would implode, that too after a promising start. To that end, they even sacked Gerard Nus after 11 games, despite the Spaniard keeping the Highlanders afloat in the playoff race.
At that point, plenty opined that NorthEast United FC would succumb to the pressure of changing managers. Not just because teams of the ilk of Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters and Odisha FC have suffered a similar fate, but also because NorthEast United FC’s reasoning of Gerard Nus not attuning to the ‘philosophy and the vision’ of the club, left a lot to be desired.
Yet, since the Spaniard’s departure, the Highlanders have been galvanised, both in the attacking and defensive thirds. Maybe Gerard Nus’ tactics were in contrast to the vision, after all.
Nevertheless, their renaissance has largely relied upon their excellent midfielders. Apuia and Khassa Camara have simply been brilliant in the middle of the park and have rarely been outrun or outclassed. Additionally, Federico Gallego has been in inspirational form and has acted as the orchestrator of everything good the Highlanders have done.
The most influential performer has perhaps been Luis Machado, with the Portuguese often providing the artistry and dexterity to carve teams open.
Apart from the aforementioned, Deshorn Brown has channeled his inner finishing instincts superbly, despite arriving as a striker that seemed a massive misfit to the ISL. Moreover, his ability to stretch defences has provided the Highlanders with another offensive dimension.
Thus, with their players firing on all cylinders, it would take a brave man to bet against them qualifying. Furthermore, of the teams in contention, they have the easiest run of fixtures, with games against East Bengal and Kerala Blasters.
While both can ruffle the odd feather, the pair has looked discernibly out of sorts, especially defensively, meaning that the Highlanders’ high-octane approach could just be too hot to handle.
In fact, the Kerala Blasters, even though they might enjoy a new/interim manager bounce, conceded four in their most recent assignment against Hyderabad FC. More damningly, each of those could have been avoided, indicating that their defence seems as porous as ceramic.
Moreover, NorthEast United FC are one of the more in-form teams in the country, having not lost an ISL encounter since 8th January, when Hyderabad FC outwitted them 4-2. During that phase, they’ve gotten the better of ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC, highlighting the Highlanders’ propensity to not baulk at potential obstacles.
Consequently, it seems that NorthEast United FC could be NorthEast United FC’s greatest opponent, at least at this juncture. Previously, they’ve self-destructed. Yet, if they refrain from that tendency, a second playoff appearance might just beckon.
FC Goa and Hyderabad FC have their fate in their own hands
A few days before the 2020-21 term began, Hyderabad FC were rocked with news emerging that Albert Roca — the Spaniard they had hired after much courting — had decided to join Ronald Koeman’s coaching staff at FC Barcelona. Subsequently, it felt that Hyderabad FC would endure another sub-standard season, considering the new manager would barely have time to ingrain his style of football.
Yet, once the season began proper, Hyderabad FC looked astonishingly effervescent — far from the picture of indecisiveness that was painted, prior to it.
For large swathes, Hyderabad FC have relied on their core of Indian players, which for a side that finished last in 2019-20 and was criticised for its complement of local talent, is an enormous achievement.
Akash Mishra and Asish Rai have manned the flanks exceptionally, whereas Chinglensana Singh has been compact at the back, alongside Odei Onaindia. Further ahead, Hitesh Sharma has acted as the link between attack and defence, while Halicharan Narzary, despite not hogging as much limelight as some of his contemporaries, has been dependable.
And, as expected, most of Hyderabad FC’s thrust has come from their foreign recruits, whether it be Joel Chianese’s trickery, Francisco Sandaza’s resurgence as a goal-scoring force, or Aridane Santana’s leadership.
More importantly though, over the past couple of months, Hyderabad FC have found ways to not lose matches — a run that stretches back to 30th December, 2020. During that period, they’ve played 10 games and have won 4 of those, with them scoring 14 goals in their victories.
However, on occasions when they’ve failed to emerge triumphant, they have had their share of scoring blues, only registering a grand total of four goals in the remaining six matches.
In addition, a case could be made that their young squad has started feeling the trials and tribulations of a heated playoff skirmish. So far, they’ve adapted well but it could be an aspect that pulls them down a little.
Thus, Hyderabad FC might have their task cut out against ATK Mohun Bagan (22nd February) and FC Goa. While the former has only shipped 11 goals throughout the entirety of the term, the stakes would be at their crest when the Nizams confront the Gaurs, for it could be a season-defining encounter.
As for FC Goa, they finally came through unscathed against Odisha FC on 17th February. That it came on the back of six successive stalemates, only emphasised that they’ve just about kept themselves in the hunt, without hitting top gear.
Though that might point towards a sluggish season for most teams, it highlights the vast reserves of perseverance the Gaurs boast. And, if they are able to turn up the heat, it could prove detrimental for those around them, considering the goal-scoring attributes of Messrs. Jorge Ortiz, Igor Angulo and of course, Ishan Pandita.
Apart from the aforementioned, Alberto Noguera has been impressive in midfield, whereas Edu Bedia has pulled the strings effortlessly. Defensively, Aibanbha Dohling, James Donachie and Ivan Gonzales have held their own, meaning that they’ve been slightly more oriented, than under Sergio Lobera.
Thus, with respect to their form and the players in their ranks, FC Goa might just have enough in the tank to edge past Hyderabad FC. However, much like the Nizams, they have two titanic tussles to end their campaign.
While one pits them against Hyderabad FC, the other sees them clash swords with Bengaluru FC — a side that has often been their kryptonite in recent seasons.
Yet, between the Gaurs and the Nizams, the former appear to possess a little more experience. Even though FC Goa lost a major chunk of their squad at the end of the 2019-20 term, they can still call upon Edu Bedia, Brandon Fernandes and Seriton Fernandes — the three survivors from the incredible Lobera era.
And, the support cast, namely Alberto Noguera, Jorge Ortiz and Igor Angulo aren’t too shabby, meaning that the aforementioned, in addition to the presence of ISL veterans, could just propel them across the line.
Bengaluru FC’s playoff hopes hang by the proverbial thread
At the start of the season, Bengaluru FC seemed intent on emerging from the 2019-20 darkness and establishing themselves as firm favourites for the title in 2020-21. Though they began relatively decently, the adage of old habits (read: rigidity in attack) dying hard, personified their performances as the term progressed.
Most worryingly though, they also started shipping goals, and quite a few of them at that. In the process, the Blues suddenly found themselves in a situation, wherein their attack was not scoring and their defence didn’t seem capable of keeping opposition forwards at bay.
The interim manager has shuffled his pack astutely and seems to have stumbled upon the ideal system — one that suits his star players to the tee. Udanta Singh seems a much harder prospect to tackle, courtesy his direct running on the flanks Suresh Singh Wangjam too, owing to his versatility, has produced energetic displays, despite playing in various positions.
Cleiton Silva, meanwhile has strengthened his goal-scoring reputation and has looked like the player that ripped apart the Thai League, between 2014 and 2017.
The biggest positive, however, has been the return to form of one Sunil Chhetri, who at times under Cuadrat in 2020-21, had seemingly lost the sparkle that has characterised his career.
At times under Moosa, Chhetri has embodied a kid rummaging for candies on Christmas Eve. The smile has re-emerged and unsurprisingly, the dearth of goals has metamorphosed into a relative glut, something that has only benefitted Bengaluru FC.
Having said that, Bengaluru FC might just have left themselves with a mountain to climb, considering that they have to bank on quite a few results going their way.
To put things into context, BFC need to win their remaining two fixtures (against FC Goa and Jamshedpur FC), while hoping that FC Goa and Hyderabad FC play out a stalemate. Additionally, the Blues also require the Nizams to lose against ATK Mohun Bagan, which would then mean that BFC, FC Goa and Hyderabad FC are tied on 28 points.
Thereafter, Bengaluru FC’s superior head-to-head record (which would have burgeoned courtesy their victory over FC Goa) would see them go through to the playoffs.
The other possibility is that NorthEast United FC only collect a solitary point from their final two matches. However, with those being against East Bengal SC and Kerala Blasters, that outcome seems highly unlikely.
Thus, Bengaluru FC need a plethora of stars to align in their favour. And, with the erraticism of the ISL a factor, that might not come to fruition. Yet, that very unpredictability means that the Blues faithful can cling onto something, despite the thread getting thinner by the minute.
Can ATK Mohun Bagan clinch top spot?
For a large chunk of the 2020-21 ISL season, ATK Mohun Bagan played patchy football, wherein goals were in short supply. However, even during that stint, they somehow always managed to win, thanks to a certain Roy Krishna. In fact, “1-0 to ATK Mohun Bagan” became the vogue — such was the regularity of their scrappy victories.
Recently, they’ve turned a corner, partly down to Marcelinho coming on board, but largely due to them hitting their straps at the business end of the ISL. And, for the uninitiated, they’ve been here countless times.
Akin to the 2019-20 campaign, Roy Krishna has been ATK Mohun Bagan’s protagonist and even though the club has been rechristened into a new identity, their saviour has remained the same. At present, the striker has 18 goal contributions (14 goals and 4 assists) and averages 0.78 goals/game.
Vitally though, most of those have come when the chips have been down and ATK Mohun Bagan have longed for some divine intervention. Unsurprisingly, with only a couple of league fixtures left, Roy Krishna could perhaps be the difference between the Mariners garnering top spot or finishing runners-up.
Elsewhere, Marcelinho has hit the ground running and has found an able ally in Manvir Singh, who has transformed into arguably the best Indian forward this term. Additionally, Carl McHugh, Edu Garcia and Javi Hernandez have efficiently controlled the tempo of matches, meaning that ATK Mohun Bagan have rarely been dominated. That they’ve done so without being at their best, only highlights their proclivity for excellence.
At the back, Tiri, Pritam Kotal and Sandesh Jhingan have been rocks. Subhasish Bose, although he endured an average start, has gotten into his own as a wing-back. And, to add to all of it, Lenny Rodrigues, once famously of FC Goa, has slotted into Antoino Lopez Habas’ system like a glove.
Thus, at this juncture, it seems that there aren’t many elements that could stand between ATK Mohun Bagan and the 2021-2022 AFC Champions League. However, the two roadblocks left to navigate might pose a few different challenges.
The Mariners’ next encounter is against Hyderabad FC, who are fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot. The final game sees the Kolkata-based outfit lock horns with Mumbai City FC – the only team capable of knocking the former off its perch.
As for the Islanders, they began like a freight train, notching up commanding victories and quickly signaling its intentions. However, as the season is meandering towards its conclusion, slivers of exhaustion and jadedness have crept into their game.
In turn, they’ve been pretty accommodating at the start and towards the latter stages of contests — a trait that led to them conceding early against Bengaluru FC (15th February) and NorthEast United FC (30th January). If one were to stretch it a little further, they also shipped the opening goal against the Kerala Blasters on 3rd Feb.
Though they were able to flip the tables against the Kochi-based side, they were left ruing their obtuse beginning against the Blues and the Highlanders. As far as conceding at the death is concerned, that facet came back to haunt them against FC Goa, when Ishan Pandita snatched a draw out of the fire.
Moreover, there have been a few glimpses that Mumbai City FC have perhaps not warmed up to Sergio Lobera’s philosophy as much as they would’ve wanted. While there have been brief spells where they have produced a crafty rendition, those have not been as frequent.
Though the Islanders need to be given ample credit for giving an impressive account of themselves, considering they had to switch from Jorge Costa’s pragmatism to Sergio Lobera’s purism, that could be something that allows ATK Mohun Bagan to pip them for the AFC Champions League slot.
As things stand, Mumbai City FC have 34 points from 18 games — a tally that is five shy of what the Mariners have mustered. Though the Islanders could reduce the arrears, courtesy a victory against the latter, they would still have to depend on Hyderabad FC doing them a favour.
A few weeks ago, the clash between the Mariners and Mumbai City FC was billed as one between the immovable object and the irresistible force. However, lately, ATK Mohun Bagan have unleashed a belligerent artillery of their own, meaning that the Islanders have plenty of prospective storms to tide over, come the 28th of February.
Thus, in consonance with the strengths and the weaknesses of each ISL outfit, and the fixtures remaining, it seems that FC Goa and NorthEast United FC hold all the aces, with respect to the qualification race. At the top of the table, though matters are less complicated, ATK Mohun Bagan are the side in the ascendancy. In fact, they would be kicking themselves if they are unable to reign supreme.
Yet, even in its nascent history, the ISL has proved that it is a league of glorious uncertainties. Consequently, one would be advised to keep oneself glued to all the potential twists and turns.
After all, when India’s premier football competition enters its home stretch, that is pretty uncompromisable anyway, isn’t it?