The race for top four seems likely to go down to the final gameweek of the league phase.
The Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 season saw some interesting drama ensue at the top half of the table in its last gameweek of thrilling contests, including a lot of changes in the top four. ATK Mohun Bagan soared up to the top of the table, while Mumbai City lost their position at the pinnacle after a series of unfortunate results.
NorthEast United’s surge continued, while the battle for the playoffs spots remains open with two places still up for grabs. After a gameweek which featured a lot of goals, unpredictable results and thrilling climaxes, here are the lessons we learned.
5. Exhausting schedule proving a stumbling block in Hyderabad’s playoffs dreams
Back-to-back draws have not reflected well for Hyderabad FC’s ambitions of qualifying for the playoffs. A few weeks back, it looked certain that the Nizams will manage a top four finish. Now they’re out of the top four and have a steep climb to get over. They might dominate games, but Manolo Marquez’s side have lacked the ruthlessness in recent games. Playing two games in the space of five days doesn’t help either.
The players aren’t recharged nor energized enough to showcase the high-octane attacking football their coach demands. While HFC showcased impressive character to snatch a late point against SC East Bengal, they will have to thrive under the pressure of this uncompromising schedule to make a late surge towards a playoffs spot.
4. FC Goa’s inability to replace defensive players coming back to haunt them
The fact that FC Goa conceded two goals to a Chennaiyin FC side that had only managed a single goal in their last five games prior to the one against the Gaurs perhaps sums up the campaign for Juan Ferrando’s side. Goa’s defensive nightmare continued as they conceded their 7th goal in three games from a poor CFC side because of some shocking defending. At this point, only four more teams have conceded more goals than the Gaurs this season.
While Super Sub Ishan Pandita and their attacking talents keep scraping some points from games, Goa’s defence is now holding them back. New boys James Donachie or Ivan Gonzalez haven’t proven to be nearly as dominant as Mourtada Fall, while Adil Khan still looks leggy. Saviour Gama’s inexperience keeps holding him back. Unless Ferrando really works on improving things, Goa’s defence could cost them a place in the ISL playoffs and even worse create an incredible embarrassment in the AFC Champions League.
3. NorthEast United’s new core turning up big at crucial time
NorthEast United produced arguably their best football under Khalid Jamil when they thrashed a woeful Odisha FC side 3-1 to race into the top three of the ISL. They’re now heavy favourites to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time in their history. As much as Jamil deserves praise for rejuvenating the belief inside the squad, the Highlanders’ smart acquisitions are beginning to pay off.
Top scorer Luis Machado starred with a brace against Odisha, while Deshorn Brown is finally proving his potential with his second club in the ISL. More than 50% of their goals scored came in thanks to their new recruits and their robust defensive performances are also because of the players signed over the summer. NorthEast’s rebuild is starting to look more and more promising with each passing game and if their new core keeps building on the momentum in the games ahead, thy could actually be the dark horses to win the knockout phases.
2. Roy Krishna the major difference in ATKMB’s title charge
A few weeks ago when he wasn’t performing to his unreal high standards, there were questions asked of Roy Krishna. Was he a one season wonder? Was he not as good as hyped? Well, the Fijian’s the one laughing at his doubters now. With seven goals in his last five games alone, the brilliant striker has been pivotal in helping ATK Mohun Bagan jump to the top of the table. Be it scoring goals or assisting them, he’s been the very definition of ‘clutch’ at the business end of the season. At the end of the day, irrespective of how good a team’s tactics are, individual quality matters the most. Krishna is the living proof of that.
Regardless of how good Adam le Fondre has been, neither he nor Hugo Boumous has made the same kind of impact as Krishna. The Fijian has won the Mariners nearly 18 points this season, more than the tally so far of some of the lower-half sides in the league. If ATKMB finish the league season on top and qualify for the AFC Champions League, they’ll be thankful of their impeccable defence and the magnificent Roy Krishna for that.
1. Bengaluru FC expose Sergio Lobera’s lack of Plan B
Just when they needed a win the most to keep their AFC Champions League dreams alive, Mumbai City FC looked slow against an under-pressure Bengaluru FC side. Led by a hungry Sunil Chhetri, the Blues weren’t as forgiving. Some poor defending, lack of communication and robotic movement ended up in a crushing loss for the Islanders and damning indictment of their chances to finish in the top spot. With only a single win over their last five games, visible cracks are beginning to appear under Mumbai’s core. Their defence isn’t solid enough and their pattern gets predictable after a point.
Sergio Lobera’s philosophy might depict an attractive form of football, but he lacks alternatives for when his system gets caught under a web. Teams are beginning to solve their riddle and the Islanders are finding it difficult to find a different pattern. Unlike ATKMB, who changed their system to a more attack-minded style which has born four successive wins in a row, Mumbai haven’t changed anything and have in fact taken a few steps backward in recent weeks. While they still might have arguably the best attacking core in the league, Lobera’s inability to thrive at the business end of the season or alternative plans are holding the Islanders back from establishing true dominance.