Race you to the finish line?
"I have done it for 20 years and it looked always like nothing. Suddenly, it becomes important so I'm quite pleased people realise that it is not as easy as it looks."
Arsene Wenger, one of the most respected managers in the history of the game, ensured arsenal football club consistently finish in the top four of the PL despite having (relatively) minimal resources to do so. As the 2020-21 ISL season approaches the climax, just five points separate third place from seventh. Even ninth place SC East Bengal can mathematically qualify for the playoffs.
The league table as of 15th February -
ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC lead the race this season with 36 points and 34 points respectively with Mumbai having a game in hand over last season’s champions. The two teams face off on the last gameweek of the season. Despite both teams having qualified already, the game is set to be like a final for both teams as the league stage winner qualifies directly to the AFC Champions League (Asia’s equivalent of the UEFA champions league)
The underdog story of the season sits at third position in NorthEast United FC, a team that only crossed the 20 point mark in two out of the last seven seasons. They’re on an impeccable form and are undefeated in their past seven games, a turnaround that nobody could’ve predicted. They failed to win a single game from 5th December to 17th of January but Khalid Jamil's appointment as head coach has been the catalyst of their recent good form. They grinded out victories against the top two in Mumbai and ATKMB and their confidence will be skyrocketing. Despite having the lowest possession and accurate passes in the league, they’ve been very effective in creating chances. Luis Machado's goals and inspired January signing Deshorn Brown's heroics have propelled them above their challengers.
Their player of the season however has arguably been midfield maestro Federico Gallego. The Uruguayan leads the charts for the Highlanders in big chances created, key passes, average rating and assists. Their final games are against three out of the bottom four making them strong favourites to finish third. Not reaching the playoffs would clearly be regarded as bottling it but you would not put it past the team that leads the league in big chances missed
Possibly the most interesting battle is between the fourth and fifth placed FC Goa and Hyderabad FC. Funnily enough, in addition to being level on points, they’ve both drawn their previous seven out of eight games. Goa has played the most clinical football until now and are the entertainers of the season, having the highest shots on target and accurate passes per match in addition to being on the ball 62.3% of the time, 6% higher than any other team in the league. Naturally, they’ve scored the maximum number of goals in the league. The home advantage, preparation for the AFC champions league and the experience of reaching the playoffs make them a safer bet over Hyderabad. However, their inability to start games on the front foot combined with their goalkeeping problems and the potential suspension of captain Edu Bedia makes them far from a lock-in.
Hyderabad coach Manuel Roca's men are the mavericks of the league. Their attack spearheaded by the relentless Aridane Santana who is supported by two of India's most exciting talents in Liston Colaco and Halicharan Narzary can induce fear in most defence's hearts. Hyderabad’s second last fixture against the champions ATKMB adds to the intrigue with the Mariners firmly in pole position for the AFC Champions League spot. FC Goa and Hyderabad both prefer a high possession game with minimal direct play and this race is likely to have drama akin to a daily soap given the tendency of Goa (read: Ishan Pandita) to score late goals
Jamshedpur, Bengaluru, and SC East Bengal all have a minimal outside chance of making it through to the playoffs. However, all three of them face a current top four team at least once and have been on downward run. Bengaluru's stunning victory over Mumbai City last night added another twist in the tale. Jamshedpur and Bengaluru face each other in their final matches and this match too could be decisive in the race for the playoffs
The season has provided us with some of the best football the tournament has ever seen, with the final day the 28th of February giving us two cracking matches in Goa vs Hyderabad and ATKMB vs Mumbai. Who will make it to the top four and who will represent the country in the AFC champions league could all come down to tiniest of margins. So sit back and buckle up for this roller coaster of a finale about to be bestowed upon us!
And to imagine all of this is just the warm up for the playoffs...