The Indian Super League returns Friday for the conclusion of the league phase and the play-offs.
A break taken for the Asian Cup is over, as some players return from the UAE with their stocks boosted, while others are left to rue their performances in the continental show-piece. Bengaluru and Goa have seven games left, while the rest have six to try and make the top four.
With a maximum of 18 points to play for till the end of season, most teams outside the top four appear to be out of the race.
Bottom four watching from sidelines
Pune City, Kerala Blasters, Delhi Dynamos and Chennaiyin FC look set to miss the magic mark of 30 points for qualification for the semi-finals. Last season, 29 was the cut-off and seventh-place Pune City will have to win all of their remaining games to achieve that total.
The Stallions, who will be under new coach Phil Brown, had done well to win three of their final five games prior to the break but their resurgence appears to be futile with four of the top six yet to be played.
Chennaiyin FC will turn their attention to the upcoming AFC Cup campaign and will try to keep the squad as fit as possible for the two-legged play-off on March 6 and 13. The Marina Machans will face the winner of Colombo and Transport United in order to reach the group stage.
Delhi Dynamos and Blasters, who are under new coach Nelo Vingada, are 11 and 13 points adrift of fourth-place NorthEast United. Any hopes they have of making the play-offs will involve a major collapse by teams ahead of them and results heading their way. And absence of relegation in the league ensures that these sides will have little to play for in the remainder of the ISL.
Who will be Bengaluru’s biggest challengers?
In the top half of the table, last season’s runners-up Bengaluru FC are still unbeaten in this season’s campaign and with 27 points on the board, making the play-offs is merely a formality for Carles Cuadrat’s team. While they lost to Chennaiyin in last season’s final, Mumbai City and Goa are their nearest challengers this time around.
Jorge Costa’s Mumbai City have been solid and are on a run of eight matches without a loss, their best-ever in the ISL. Since their 5-0 defeat to Goa, they have picked up 20 points, a record only matched by Bengaluru in the same period.
For Goa to falter in their play-off chase, will be anti-climatic given they have continued their free-scoring ways under Sergio Lobera this season. The Gaurs’ mini-slump included a 2-0 humbling at the hands of Pune, one that they will like to forget.
Given the nature of the attacking power at their disposal, Goa still remain the team to challenge BFC for the title. Clean sheets and the porous defence remains a concern, with only the bottom four having let in more goals this season that Lobera’s men.
NorthEast United, Jamshedpur and ATK are all separated by four points, so they are likely to contest the fourth and final play-off spot. Eelco Schattorie’s side were destroyed 5-1 by Goa in their last match, so the Dutchman will have to re-focus his team’s efforts to get over the line.
Matches to watch out for
Mumbai City versus Bengaluru on January 27 is a game that should not be missed due to the fact that the Islanders gave the Blues a real scare last time they met. The teams drew 1-1, but Mumbai City had better chances arguably, even though they were down to 10 men. Now back at home, they will look to consign BFC to their first defeat of the season, having pumped half a dozen past the Kerala Blasters in their last game at the same venue.
Goa-Jamshedpur ended 4-1 to the Steel city team, but Lobera’s side will look to hit the ground running in their second half of the season. With Coro back among the goals, Jamshedpur will hope to shut the door on the Gaurs and their marksmen.
The match to look out for and a possible dress rehearsal of the final, should BFC and Goa teams avoid each other in the semis, will be held at the Kanteerava on February 21. With the last meeting ending with ten men apiece for both teams, this could really be the date to mark in your calendars.