As the Indian Super League’s league stage approaches its end, the race for the top four spots heat up but this week, it was a top versus bottom clash which set the cat among the pigeons.
Bengaluru did not have the best of weeks, and could have easily succumbed to defeats against two of their southern rivals. It was one point gained from six, and Kerala Blasters were wasteful in front of goal, otherwise the game-week could have yielded a grand zero for BFC.
They weren’t the only side at the top to lose, Mumbai City followed up their loss to Goa with another at the hands of Jamshedpur. The Steelmen are now only a point off the top four, and NorthEast United will be casting furtive glances in their rear-view mirror.
Bengaluru’s tough week
It was supposed to be an easy week for Bengaluru. Top of the table, needing only one win to qualify for the play-offs against the sides ranked ninth and tenth.
Chennaiyin versus Bengaluru could only be two seasons old but it is fast transforming into the the stand-out fixture of the Indian Super League. These two sides clearly have no love lost for each other, and off-the-field incidents have not helped either.
From Gurpreet Sandhu’s comments after last year’s ISL final to Dhanpal Ganesh celebrating Chennaiyin’s victory in front of a packed Bengaluru crowd to Sunil Chhetri’s video asking for a change in the slot allocations for Asian competitions, it is clear that this has long gone past the ‘friendly rivalry’ zone.
In Bengaluru’s sixth year of existence, it’s tough to imagine that any club could have a winning record over the Blues but Chennaiyin now hold a 3-2 advantage. Add that to the fact that Chennaiyin will hold that Indian spot in Asia this year, and Bengaluru fans will be smarting.
For the JSW blues, anything less than that Asian spot will not do, but the express train that picked up 22 points in their first eight matches has turned into a crawl with nine in their last seven. Chennaiyin had won one game all season. The holders’ 2-1 win earned them the bragging rights and every other team in the league. Every other team, apart from BFC, that is.
Blasters must rebuild around Sahal, Bodo and Len
It should have been two defeats in a week for Bengaluru, but Matej Poplatnik fluffed his lines with his side up 2-0 after 43 minutes. Against the Blasters and Marina Machans, BFC started slowly and both teams took due advantage of it.
The West Block Blues may not value this match-up as much as the one against Chennaiyin, but the Manjappada certainly did and their team looked good value for a win, winning their first point against the table toppers in four attempts, even the official BFC handle acknowledging it.
The Blasters had a stinker against Delhi, but were up for this game and Nelo Vingada will feel aggrieved that he could not get all three points. Vingada has rallied the Blasters and they look better for his appointment, but his re-building work will start after the Super Cup.
Sahal Abdul Samad pulled the strings against Bengaluru and the youngster is more than your average Instagram model Joe, as evidenced by his call-up to the pre-Asian Cup national camp. Composed on the ball, fire-fighter off it, Sahal and Jobby Justin could just be the tonic that Kerala football needs right now.
Len Doungel is another who has stood out for the Blasters in this difficult season, and along with these two and Baoringdao Bodo, Vingada must re-build the team around these three. They could opt for more expensive foreigners from second-rung leagues like they have in the past but to let the potential gains from these three go to null would be criminal.
Nail-biting time for NorthEast
Mumbai City and NorthEast had a nervous week, both stumbling in their top-four quest. While Mumbai still have a four-point cushion over Jamshedpur, NorthEast are a point above the Steelmen and could well end up not qualifying for the play-offs, having spent the full season in the top four.
A draw against Delhi Dynamos at home would not have improved Eelco Schattorie’s mood as their goals have dried up. They have only scored five times in the last seven games, and have won only once, drawing four times in that period. Only the Blasters and Chennaiyin have a worse record over those seven games; the basement clubs hardly inspiring company for NorthEast.
The Highlanders have never qualified for the play-offs before and this seems to be their best chance but lose to Mumbai City and their fate will no longer be in their own hands. Should NorthEast win, that will mean three losses on the bounce for Jorge Costa’s Islanders while a draw will not be good enough for Schattorie’s team. Something’s got to give on Wednesday at the Andheri Football Arena.
Censorship and policing
Lastly, in a week where the whole footballing world was engrossed with the injustice meted out to Hakeem Al-Araibi in a Thailand jail, ISL authorities ruled against the display of a banner in support of the Australian player at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.
This drew the ire of many, including Bengaluru’s Erik Paartalu, who rightly lambasted those in charge of this bizarre decision. This wasn’t the only instance of fan rights being curbed in the ISL, as a Delhi Dynamos fan criticised the over-policing of fans at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
This wasn’t the first instance this season either, with similar unrest among the supporters earlier. The concern to martial unruly elements within the crowd is understandable, but surely a line must be drawn somewhere with public sensitivity taken into account? To treat football fans like those of cricket or tennis would be a glaring mis-use of the ‘One Size Fits All’ policy. The beautiful game is the noisy game, something a thousand ‘Fan Banna Padegaa’ campaigns will not change.