The enticing three-horse race between ATK, FC Goa and Bengaluru FC for the top spot continued with just less than a month remaining for the league fixtures of the 2019-’20 Indian Super League to end. Defeats for Kerala Blasters, NorthEast United and Jamshedpur FC saw the trio bow out of the playoff race.
The ATK juggernaut rolled on after an assured display helped them regain the top spot. Ferran Corominas achieved yet another milestone as FC Goa weathered the storm to beat Odisha FC and stay in second-place while Nishu Kumar’s stunning strike ensured all the three points for the defending champions Bengaluru FC.
Contrasting wins for Mumbai City and Chennaiyin FC meant that the race for the fourth spot only got tighter.
We take a look at the things we learned from another action-packed week in the ISL.
Mumbai City of the old
You can never really rule out Mumbai City out of the semi-final race under Jorge Costa, even when they might not have the personnel to do so. Their hard-fought victory against NorthEast United showed exactly why as they put no foot wrong to claw their way back to fourth place.
It was a characteristic similar to Costa’s side last season: defensively compact, tactically-well drilled and explosive on the counter attack. NorthEast United have looked blunt in attack ever since Asamoah Gyan’s departure but against the Islanders they could have fancied their chances, particularly in the second half, where the home side fielded a makeshift defense with midfielder Mohamed Rafique and winger Bipin Singh filling in as full-backs.
However, Mumbai played diligently and snuffed out danger by defending well in numbers. Diego Carlos’s goal just before the stroke of half-time helped them ease their way into the remaining half, and they saw out the game.
“It was not a wonderful game,” said Costa after the match. “We are playing under a lot of pressure. I told the players that we have only two options for this game. It’s to win and to win. They didn’t have any other option, if we had to finish fourth,” he added.
With three matches to go, the right-back spot continues to remain a concern for Mumbai City with Sarthak Golui out remainder of the season. They have roped in Keenan Almeida to address the issue but if they can continue to nick out wins, in whatever fashion it may be, nailing down a top-four spot remains a strong possibility.
Gurpreet shows his class
There have been moments in the ongoing ISL campaign where India custodian Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has been error-prone and shaky. However, on his day, he is class and impenetrable. Gurpreet’s brilliance against Hyderabad FC showed the kind of impact the 28-year-old can have between the sticks.
Hyderabad have been the league’s whipping boys but ever since Phil Brown’s departure, they have turned a corner. Away from home against Bengaluru at the Kanteerava, a place where many teams have struggled to grab points, the newcomers put up a spirited display and could have held the Blues to a draw, had it not been for Gurpreet’s heroics in front of goal.
From saving Marko Stankovic’s penalty in the first-half and then denying substitute Liston Colaco a last-gasp goal, Gurpreet was sublime, making six saves in all. Gurpreet helped Bengaluru record their ninth clean sheet, joint-highest alongside leaders ATK.
Gurpreet is now only behind NorthEast United glovesman Subhasish Roy Chowdhury for saves made this season.
Valskis just can’t stop scoring
The scene of Nerijus Valskis running to the corner flag and mimicking Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark celebration has become a familiar sight for Chennaiyin FC fans. For a team that went without scoring in their first four matches – 756 minutes since last season – Chennaiyin FC remain only second to FC Goa and ATK for goals scored this campaign. And frontman Valskis has been the driving force behind their resurgence.
Physically strong, good in the air and technically sound, the Lithuanian has blanked only once since November whilst providing four assists. Valskis is threatening Corominas’ bid for a third straight golden boot with 12 goals to his name this season, the highest so far. That’s a goal every 0.86 minutes. What a find!
Tension brewing at FC Goa
Who saw this coming? Earlier last week, FC Goa took a bold step by firing coach Sergio Lobera mid-way during the season with the club still in contention for the AFC Champions League and firm favourites to reach the playoffs. They have done this with one foreigner less in their squad.
FC Goa fans have already made their outrage known and in what seems to be an apparent rift between the club hierarchy and the coaching staff going by Lobera’s statement, and this could come back to haunt the club if they fall off the rails from here.
Lobera hasn’t won the ISL, having come close with a runners-up medal during the 2018-’19 season, but leaves India with a rich legacy and having exhibited an exciting brand of football that has captivated the attention of the country. Clifford Miranda takes over as interim coach, becoming the first Indian to manage any ISL team.