The sixth edition of the Indian Super League got underway on October 20 with Kerala Blasters beating two-time champions ATK, much to the delight of the Kochi faithful who once again filled up the stands.
Most stories that unfolded during the competition’s first full week – that saw eight games being played – were on expected lines, with only a few results raising eyebrows.
Champions Bengaluru FC’s 0-0 draw against NorthEast United at home was perhaps the biggest surprise of the first week with ATK’s 5-0 thrashing of newcomers Hyderabad FC coming close second.
Mumbai City FC ended the week on top of the points tables after securing four creditable points in their two away games against Kerala Blasters and Chennaiyin. NorthEast United, who are in joint lead, followed up their gritty performance at the Kanteerava with a hard-fought win over Odisha at home.
FC Goa seemed to have taken off from where they left off last season, producing another display of dominant, attacking football that has been a hallmark of the Sergio Lobera era to beat Chennaiyin 3-0.
While it’s still early days to draw any serious conclusions about the teams, here are some key takeaways from the first week of the ISL.
ISL’s refereeing standard has come under criticism a few times in the past, but the opening week of the new season saw the performance drop to a new low. Glaring mistakes in several of the first eight matches made coaches lose their cool very early in the season.
In the very first game, ATK – who had made a bright start to the game against the Blasters – were denied a clear goal that was incorrectly ruled offside by the linesman, before being denied a certain penalty. With the score reading 1-0 in the away side’s favour, the decision could have altered the eventual result of the game that Kerala went on to win.
In the game between FC Goa and Chennaiyin, the away side were denied a stonewall penalty with the score still at 0-0. The visitors wilted away as the game progressed to lose 0-3, but the penalty could have made it a completely different game.
“It was unbelievable, the lack of a decision by both the referee and the linesman, it was a clear-cut penalty. For me, if that referee made that kind of mistake in Europe, you’d never see him again in the top league.
He’d be refereeing in the fifth division or a league where you’d never hear of him again. But in India, he’d probably be refereeing again this weekend. Nothing gets said, nothing gets done. The standard certainly needs to improve,” Chennaiyin coach John Gregory said of the referee’s performance in Goa.
A similar mistake took place in the game between Kerala Blasters and Mumbai City FC where Mumbai were denied a penalty in the first-half that caught the attention of their coach Costa.
Unfortunately, there is no VAR in the ISL. But if there was a review system, it would have been kept busy and maybe the table would have had a different look.
Lack of Indian goalscorers
Out of the 18 goals that have been scored so far, only two goals have been netted by Indians. The foreign players have ruled the roost while the locals have been guilty of making the wrong choices when presented with opportunities to find the net.
FC Goa’s Seiminlen Doungel became the first Indian player to score this season before NorthEast United’s Redeem Tlang netted against Odisha FC.
The dearth of Indian scorers has also a lot to do with the coaches’ preference to play overseas players in attacking positions. Only FC Goa have played with an Indian center-forward, with the other sides relying heavily on foreign talent. Whenever Indian players have found a place in teams’ attacks, it’s usually been out in the wider areas of the pitch.
Having said that, the local players who have had opportunities to score a goal have not shown enough composure, further contributing to the poor tally.
New names, same-old story
Odisha FC and Hyderabad FC were the two teams that entered the season with a new name, and in case of Hyderabad FC with new ownership as well. Delhi Dynamos moved to Bhubaneshwar while Hyderabad FC replaced the defunct FC Pune City. Despite being a new franchise, Hyderabad took over almost the exact same set of players that played for the Pune club.
However, change of names have hardly brought in a change in fortunes as both sides lost their opening games of the season. Odisha went down tamely to ten-man Jamshedpur FC failing to make their numerical advantage count, while Hyderabad FC were brushed aside 5-0 by a rampant ATK side.
Odisha, despite dominating large parts of their second match, lost to NorthEast United to start their campaign with two successive defeats that could have been wins. Delhi Dynamos had made a habit of losing games they dominated in the last two seasons, making it a case of history repeating itself.
For Hyderabad FC, who are FC Pune City in a new package, the case was no different as they were swatted aside by their opponents. Hyderabad fashioned just one shot on target in the entire game while conceding 11 on their goal.
After such a demoralising start, one wonders if Hyderabad would go down the same road FC Pune City found themselves on four out of the five ISL seasons so far: fail to qualify for the semi-finals.
The first eight matches of the ISL have already seen three red cards and the count could have been higher had the referees got some of their decisions right.
All three red cards have resulted from players making professional fouls to deny the opponent a clear opportunity to score the goals.
Jamshedpur’s Bikash Jairu, who isn’t even a natural defender, brought down Jerry M outside the box and rightly saw red for not coming close to winning the ball while making the tackle that denied the Odisha forward a clear goalscoring opportunity.
Odisha’s Carlos Delgado also received his marching orders for a similar foul on NorthEast United’s forward. Mumbai City FC’s Shouvik Chakraborty, on the other hand, was given a second yellow card for a blatant foul on the Chennaiyin player who threatened to initiate a counter-attack against a Mumbai defence who lacked in numbers at the back at the point.
The red cards were results of players struggling with match sharpness and teams still working on their defensive transitions. With quite a few new faces in the ranks, expect teams to improve their disciplinary records as the season progresses.
Top marksmen make it count
There may not have been many Indian goalscorers, but a fact that would make the coaches happy after the first week is to see their main centre-forwards on the score sheet. Barring the three teams that are yet to open their account, all the other teams saw their main goalscorer get success.
For Mumbai, Amine Chermiti scored the winner against Kerala, while Asamoah Gyan did the same for NorthEast against Odisha. Ferran Corominas got his season up and running with a goal against Chennaiyin, as did star signing Roy Krishna for ATK.
Sergio Castel scored the winning goal against Odisha for Jamshedpur FC after Bartholomew Ogbeche had netted a brace on opening day to give Kerala Blasters a winning start. Even for Odisha, who lost both games, coach Josep Gombau would be pleased to have Adriane Santana score his first goal in the league this season.
Strikers rely heavily on confidence and the coaches would be delighted to see their top marksmen getting into the act early.