The 2020-21 ISL season will also witness what would be the tightest playoffs race till date in the history of the league.

Exactly ten more league stage games remain in the Indian Super League (ISL) 2020-21 league stage. The dates and venues for the upcoming playoffs and final have already been announced, but with the teams continuing to fight strongly, we are yet to have a solid idea as to who among them will make it into the next stage.

Although ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City have already qualified for the playoffs, they are off on a separate race of their own to finish as league stage winners and earn a berth in the AFC Champions League. As many as five teams – Hyderabad, Goa, NorthEast United, Bengaluru and Jamshedpur – are vying for the remaining two playoff spots. It hence looks like the race will go on till the final day of the league stage.

Meanwhile, Gameweek 20 of the Indian Super League that concluded on Saturday also saw a few other notable happenings – such as the parting of ways between Kerala Blasters and head coach Kibu Vicuna, assistant coach Steven Dias taking charge at Odisha FC after Gerald Peyton left the club due to personal reasons and so on. In this article, we will be discussing the five most important talking points from Gameweek 20 of the ISL 2020-21 season.

5. End-of-season meltdown signals Déjà vu for Lobera

It goes without saying that Sergio Lobera is one of the most successful tacticians in the history of the Indian Super League. Before taking up the role of head coach at Mumbai City in the summer, he had plied the same trade at FC Goa, where he had an overall record of 35 wins, 11 draws and 17 losses in 63 games with a win percentage of 55.55%. At Mumbai also he has had good success so far, with most of the wins coming in the first half of the league stage. That said, it now looks like the Spaniard is suffering yet another end-of-season meltdown, like it previously happened at Goa.

While in-charge of the Gaurs, he led them to the playoffs and the final, but was unable to get them the title. They did win the Super Cup once, but that obviously pales in comparison to the tag of ‘League Champions.’

At Mumbai, he had made it clear that they would be looking to go all-out in their pursuit of the top spot in the league stage. This was because that will help them cement their place in the AFC Champions League next season. At one stage, the Islanders did look like they will comfortably run away with what they wanted, but back-to-back losses against Bengaluru and Jamshedpur, along with draws against Chennaiyin FC and Goa have helped ATK Mohun Bagan usurp their place at the top of the table.

The Mariners now have a five-point lead over Mumbai City, with two games remaining. If Habas’ boys win their upcoming match against Hyderabad, it is going to be just playoffs for Mumbai, which will signal another failed objective for Sergio Lobera.

4. Lack of consistency the key problem for Jamshedpur

Before the season began, Jamshedpur FC were regarded as dark-horses, who would maybe spoil the party for one or two other teams. It was hence upon them to disprove the majority opinion and that required them to register positive results consistently. JFC are one of the teams that are yet to make it to the playoffs and with the signings of Nerijus Valskis, Peter Hartley, Stephen Eze and so on, along with the appointment of Owen Coyle as the head coach, they had the perfect opportunity to do so this time.

But, once again the Men of Steel have failed to perform consistently. On a good day, they will beat strong teams like Mumbai City, but on a bad day, they will lose to Kerala Blasters. Having blown hot and cold all season, they are on the verge of qualifying for the ISL 2020-21 playoffs but will have to depend on other teams’ results as well. It is a rather unfortunate situation to be in, especially considering how a few improved performances would have confirmed their qualification by now.

3. Chennaiyin lose their way due to recruitment issues

At one point, last season’s finalists and two-time champions Chennaiyin FC looked set to make it into the next stage of the league once again this season. Since then, the Marina Machans have fallen from grace and are now officially out of the playoffs race. Looking back, one cannot but cite off-field mistakes such as recruitment issues, as the reason for their downfall.

ISL 2020-21 Highlights M98: Chennaiyin FC Vs Northeast United

The recruitment prior to the start of the season was too experimental. For instance, CFC are the only side that do not have an Australian player. All the other ten teams have Aussie names and most of those players have managed to perform well in India, after plying their trade in the A-League. The biggest impact that Fatkhullo Fatkhulloev has created for them so far was when his signing was announced back in October. Memo Moura has only been a shadow of himself from his Jamshedpur days and Jakub Sylvestr has delivered next to nothing as his team’s first-choice No.9.

Rafael Crivellaro’s injury was a huge setback for the team as well. Although, he was replaced by Manuel Lanzarote who has shown signs of promise, the 37-year-old is not the complete solution to Csaba Laszlo’s problems.

2. New season, familiar story for Kerala Blasters

At 2.0m, Kerala Blasters have the biggest followers’ count on Instagram among ISL teams. At the other end of things, they have also parted ways with the most coaches since the league’s inception. Kibu Vicuna was the ninth KBFC head coach to leave the club without completing his work and as understood, there are multiple reasons behind his exit.

The two-time finalists began well by signing some promising names with a lot of experience. Gary Hooper who is one of Celtic’s best-ever goalscorers, Costa Nhamoinesu who has played over 200 games for Sparta Prague, Bakary Kone who has plied his trade against the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani in Ligue 1 and Vicente Gomez who has played against Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga all joined the Yellow Army, as part of a major squad overhaul that also saw Barthlomew Ogbeche, Messi Bouli, Moustapha Gning and others leave the club. They also signed and extended existing contracts of many promising domestic stars. Before the games began, it certainly looked like the club had a better summer transfer window.

But, none of it was seen on the field. Costa and Kone performed well together in one game – the opening 1-0 loss against ATK Mohun Bagan. Their first win of the season came against Hyderabad FC after over a month, in both players’ absence. Hooper, Facundo Pereyra, Jordan Murray and Gomez have steadily improved and so have Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP, Jeakson Singh and Sandeep Singh among others – but apart from individual performances, we are yet to see a complete team effort from them this season.

With just three wins from 18 matches, Kerala Blasters are out of the playoffs race for the fourth straight season. With Vicuna’s exit, it also looks like the team will go back to the drawing board once again – yet another repeat of a cycle that is very familiar to their unfortunate fans.

1. Tightest playoffs race in ISL history

As already mentioned, ISL 2020-21 will witness the tightest playoffs race so far in the history of the league. Five different teams are fighting it out for the third and fourth places on the points table, while the first and second place will be decided between ATKMB and MCFC.

At the time of writing, each of Hyderabad, Goa and NorthEast United are level on points and games played (27 in 18). Bengaluru FC are just below them and can take their points’ tally to 28 if they win both their remaining games. Jamshedpur have one match left and winning that will take them to 27 points. If HFC, Goa and/or NEUFC lose both their remaining matches, BFC and JFC will have more chances to qualify than right now.

The final match of the season’s league stage is ATK Mohun Bagan Vs Mumbai City and it will decide who will take home the first place in the standings and the AFC Champions League spot. That said, this playoffs race is most likely to go down to the final whistle of the league stage.

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