With the league stages of the 2019-’20 Indian Super League done and dusted, the attention turns to the much-awaited playoffs which will commence on Saturday.
NorthEast United’s thrilling draw with Chennaiyin FC in the last league game of the season settled the top four spot as Owen Coyle’s men finished fourth with 29 points, one point adrift Bengaluru FC.
Two-time winners Chennaiyin FC will lock horns with table-toppers and shield winners FC Goa, who topped the charts with 39 points while second-placed ATK, who finished with 34 points will face defending champions Bengaluru FC.
With FC Goa bagging the ISL League Winners Shield and securing a historic spot in the group stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League, a AFC Cup playoff spot will be up for grabs for the four semi-finalists. Below, we take a look at how all four made the cut:
After failing at the final hurdle following a runners-up finish in the 2018-’19 campaign, FC Goa have a chance to redeem themselves. The Gaurs, who scripted history by becoming the first side to secure direct entry to the playoff stages of the AFC Champions League, will be hoping to get their hands on the ISL trophy that has evaded them for five seasons.
Their march to the playoffs hasn’t been surprising as the Goan side have continued the trend set during the past three seasons – steamrolling teams and plundering goals with their ruthless attacking approach. This season, they have managed to stage late comebacks even in tough circumstances and nicked out late goals to finish top for the first time.
FC Goa opened their account with a convincing victory over Chennaiyin FC but the ride to the top was a bumpy one for them after managing to win just two of their opening six matches. They shook off their patchy form with four successive wins to finish 2019 at the top.
The new year did not begin on a successful note as two crucial away defeats to ATK and Bengaluru FC saw them slip from the summit. With the race for the top spot heating up, Sergio Lobera’s untimely sacking in February further cast doubt over their Asian dreams.
But even under the mentorship of interim coach Clifford Miranda, FC Goa have maintained their identity of attacking and high-risk football that has made them a force to reckon with in the league. The nerves will have eased after reaching the AFC Champions League but with the final scheduled to be held in Goa, there’s no better place to clinch their first ISL title.
|Top scorer||Ferran Corominas (14 goals)|
Coach Antonio Lopez Habas’ comeback has worked wonders as ATK now have a chance to add a third title. The two-time winners made their intentions known right from the summer transfer window when they decided to revamp the squad with some splendid signings. They have backed it up with impressive performances this season and have proved to be a tough nut to crack.
Habas has managed to strike a fine balance between attack and defence, which has been the key reason behind their consistency. They rank second for the least goals conceded (16) and for most goals scored (36), behind Bengaluru FC and FC Goa respectively.
The Kolkata outfit did not enjoy the best of starts, having stumbled against Kerala Blasters in their opening game. They rallied back, embarking on a six-match unbeaten streak with the fearsome duo of Roy Krishna and David Williams spearheading their charge till December.
Injuries to key players such as Williams, John Johnson, Carl McHugh, Agus Garcia threatened to derail their campaign midway but Habas’ tactical flexibility in switching between a three and four-man defence on occasions helped ATK grind out results.
They looked on course to finish at the top spot before a humbling loss at home to Chennaiyin FC saw them drop to second.
The dejection of failing to qualify for the AFC Champions League will remain but ATK will take confidence heading into the playoffs as Bengaluru FC has failed to beat them (a win and a draw) this season. Habas’ side have also beaten FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC once each.
|Top scorer||Roy Krishna (14 goals)|
Despite securing their qualification to the playoffs for the third season straight, it has been an underwhelming season for Bengaluru FC. Having topped the league for two seasons since they joined the ISL in 2017-’18, the failure to churn out results consistently during the business end has hampered their chances of finishing on top in the ongoing campaign.
Their defence has stood out, boasting a league-high tally of 10 clean sheets throughout the season while conceding just 13 goals, the best record in the league. However, the Blues’ goal-scoring woes have been at the forefront of their downfall, netting just 22 goals, the third-worst tally alongside Jamshedpur FC.
14 of those goals have come from set-pieces alone. It is not like they have struggled to create chances, but the quality of finishing in the final third has hurt them. They have been banking on Sunil Chhetri to get the goals upfront while wingers Udanta Singh and summer-signing Ashique Kuruniyan have been underwhelming.
That has resulted in constant changes upfront with the team yet to find the right combination. Winless in their last three games, a big test awaits them in the playoffs as they meet a formidable ATK side.
|Top scorer||Sunil Chhetri (9 goals)|
Chennaiyin FC’s season has been nothing short of a fairytale. After enduring a torrid start to their campaign under John Gregory, winning just one from their first seven matches and reeling at second from the bottom, Owen Coyle’s appointment in December gave them a big boost.
The Irishman ensured a remarked turnaround for the two-time winners, bagging a staggering 20 points out of the possible 24 in their last eight matches to help them sneak into the top four. Unbeaten in their last eight matches and with a staggering tally of 24 goals, Chennaiyin FC look the team to beat at the moment.
While Gregory’s approach was more pragmatic, under Coyle, Chennaiyin FC have morphed into a dynamic and unrelenting attacking force. They have just registered just four clean sheets all season but have put opposition defences to the sword with ease during counter-attacks.
Edwin Vanspaul’s introduction from defence to midfield has provided balance, giving the license to the creative Anirudh Thapa and Rafael Crivellaro to weave their magic in the middle of the park.
Nerijus Valskis has been their talisman and top-scorer while the pace and trickery of Lallianzuala Chhangte and Andre Schembri have been too hot to handle.
FC Goa will hold the tag of the favourites in the two-legged playoff tie but given the momentum Chennaiyin FC have on their side, Coyle is well placed.
|Top scorer||Nerijus Valskis (13 goals)|