For the first time in three editions of the Indian Super League, there is a strong posibility that Bengaluru FC might not end up at the top spot – this time it could hurt the club because being No 1 comes with an added reward of the AFC Champions League spot.
The Blues lost crucial ground in race for the coveted spot after dropping points in the latest set of fixtures as ATK and FC Goa, placed first and second respectively, both racked up wins to confirm their qualification for the playoffs.
For teams outside the top six, who are battling a lost cause, their position at the bottom half of the table remained static – all failing to register a victory.
With now just two playoff positions up for grabs, here are the talking points from the week gone by in the ISL:
A new hero for Mumbai City
Jorge Costa’s Mumbai City squad isn’t short of characters who are capable of raising their hand and taking responsibility when needed. A change of system from Jamshedpur FC had left the Islanders perplexed and it took two smart substitutions from Costa as they rallied back from a goal down.
For Mumbai, Sourav Das had failed to win his individual battles while Raynier Fernandes did not impress either – being given the responsibility of exposing the spaces between the midfield and the defensive lines.
On came Bidyananda Singh and Serge Kevyn and the home side had to change the way they played, keeping possession rather than hitting the opposition on the counter-attack. They battled stiff resistance from JFC even after Amine Chermiti’s equaliser. Mumbai threw the kitchen sink with a total of 23 shots but the match seemed heading for a draw until Bidyananda Singh popped up with something special – his first ISL goal, a shot drilled low and hard that sneaked into the far corner.
Jamshedpur FC custodian Subrata Pal could’ve done better to stop the winner but Bidyananda’s goal was enough to bail Mumbai City out of trouble. The blonde-haired midfielder became the 14th different MCFC player to find the net this season and no other team has more goalscorers involved.
The victory didn’t stop Costa from expressing his unhappiness over the club’s failure to replace Machado but in Bidyananda, they had found another hero within their ranks as the push for the playoff spot continued.
Misfiring Bengaluru FC stutter without Chhetri
It turned out to be a mixed week for the Blues, who had to turn their attention to the AFC Cup alongside competing for top spot in the league.
The away trip to Bhutan was successful as Thongkhosiem Hoakip’s goal against Paro FC in the first leg of their preliminary stage clash handed Carles Cuadrat’s men an advantage. But Sunil Chhetri suffered a knock in the same match which saw him being rested against Chennaiyin FC as a precaution.
After the full-time whistle against rampant Chennaiyin FC, Chhetri’s absence was dearly felt as the defending champions slipped up in the title race. Bengaluru FC recorded a league-high tally of ten clean sheets but in front of goal, they were wasteful, resulting in a goal-less draw.
Wingers Ashique Kuruniyan and Udanta Singh were both kept in check by the Chennaiyin FC backline. The best of chances fell to Haokip, who replaced Deshorn Brown at half-time but the closest he came was hitting the woodwork.
It was one of those days where nothing went in their favour, despite creating better chances in the second half, leaving Chhetri distraught on the sidelines. The Bengaluru FC captain was also booked after the full-time whistle for an altercation with the referee, meaning he will sit out their clash against Kerala Blasters.
Even Cuadrat frankly admitted that nothing was in their hands anymore after blanking for the fifth time this season.
”Maybe without these three points, we are out of the Champions League slot,” the Bengaluru FC boss said at the post-match press conference.
”We are playing ATK in the last game, but we would need Goa to drop two games. So, it’s going to be very difficult. They are a very good team. It’s football and anything can happen but we are in a position where it’s not in our hands anymore. At the moment, I see that Goa have a good chance to finish atop the league table.”
Onwu enjoying life in Odisha colours
Losing striker Aridane Santana in January through injury for the business end of the season was a huge blow for Odisha FC after they fought their way back to reach fourth. What was more difficult for Josep Gombau’s side was finding a like-for-like replacement for their talisman.
They didn’t have to look too far in the recent transfer window as Manuel Onwu was the chosen one, a man who had endured a torrid start to his Bengaluru FC career after signing in the summer, failing to score in 371 minutes of action.
Now at Odisha FC, Onwu looks a different player and has found redemption with three goals from just two matches – with just three shots on target. At Bengaluru FC, he had failed to muster even a single one.
Gombau’s expansive style of play and their threat from wings has helped, with Onwu scoring all his goals so far from crosses.
In his new stint, Onwu has also developed a good understanding with playmaker Xisco Hernandez, although their defense has been a worry.
NorthEast United bite the bullet on Robert Jarni
Winless in their last eleven outings, NorthEast United decided to part ways with head coach Robert Jarni; the Croatian being given his marching orders just seven months into the job.
Life in NorthEast had got off to great start for the 1998 World Cupper, with the Highlanders undefeated in their first six games.
But ever since headline summer signing Asamoah Gyan was ruled out for the rest of the season, the wheels have fallen off. The propensity of conceding goals coupled with a blunt attack have derailed their campaign.
But there were some silver linings too.
Veteran goalkeeper Subhasish Roy Chowdhury rolled back the years and was impressive between the sticks while teenagers Ninthoi Meetei and Lalengmawia both have excelled in Jarni’s system. It might not be fair to blame the coach alone since overseas players Federico Gallego, Jose Leudo and Martin Chaves were also far from their best. Gyan’s replacement, Andy Keogh, has not received the best of services to turn around their goalscoring woes while Simon Lundevall has failed to adapt.
Already out of the playoff race, there was no pressure on the club to make this decision and providing Jarni some time more could’ve helped the Croatian prepare better for next season.