After 18-and-a-half weeks of toil and tussle, the Indian Super League (ISL) has its final four for the playoffs — Clifford Miranda’s FC Goa, Antonio López Habas’ ATK, Carles Cuadrat’s Bengaluru FC, and Owen Coyle’s Chennaiyin FC — all of whom have the final on March 14 in their sights.
While two-time champions Chennaiyin FC will face league winners FC Goa, defending champions Bengaluru FC will take on second-placed ATK, who finished four points higher than The Blues. And it’s not just the ISL trophy, a AFC Cup playoff spot is also up for grabs after The Gaurs secured a historic spot in the group stages of the 2021 AFC Champions League.
Before the first semi-final on Saturday, some questions need to be answered: How did FC Goa pick themselves up after their soul-crushing defeat in the final last March? What spurred ATK into almost topping the table after a lacklustre sixth-placed finish last season? Where have Carles Cuadrat’s champions gone wrong? How did Chennaiyin FC manage to do the near-impossible?
A day before the semi-final against Chennaiyin, the Gaurs already have the League Winners Shield with a table-topping 39 points and a place in the group stages of the AFC Champions League — the first Indian team to achieve the feat.
What’s more commendable is that the squad have maintained their high-octane performances despite losing last season’s final to an extra-time Bengaluru FC goal. Although the season started quite shakily with just two wins from six matches, Sergio Lobera’s men quickly picked up steam to finish top of the table at the end of 2019.
Even after Lobera’s sacking, FC Goa showed immense doggedness and the credit for that goes to two particular Goans — technical director Derrick Perriera and interim manager Clifford Miranda. Both of them guided the squad to win the league in style, with 14 goals in their last three outings. The team’s season has been defined by Mohammad Nawaz’s saves, Mourtada Fall’s tackles, Hugo Boumous’ flair with the ball and Ferran Corominas just being himself.
All that remains for them is two matches against the rejuvenated Chennaiyin, whom they have already beaten twice in the league, [3-0, 4-3], to reach their second consecutive final.
LEAGUE RECORD: 39 points | 12W, 3D, 3L | 46 goals | 5 clean sheets
TOP SCORERS: Ferran Corominas (14 goals), Hugo Boumous (11 goals)
Ever since Atletico Madrid abandoned their Kolkata-based pet project, ATK found themselves floundering as they finished sixth in 2018/19. But since the return of former manager Antonio López Habas, the two-time champions have seen inspired signings, solidity at the back and tactical flexibility.
Although they started the season with a loss to Kerala Blasters, they were a changed team from the second match itself and hammered Hyderabad FC 5-0. After a near-perfect run, the prestigious AFC Champions League berth seemed within reach, but injuries and FC Goa’s impeccable form prevented Habas’ team going continental.
But finishing second is a success in its own right, given the condition Habas found the club in at the start of the season. Handpicking players from the Iberian peninsula to Oceanic islands, Habas formed a team around the likes of Roy Krishna, David Williams, Agus Garcia, and Michael Soosairaj.
Added to the inspired core was the brilliance of Habas’ tactical superiority — with the team shifting to a three-man defence whenever needed. Even without Williams, John Johnson, Carl McHugh, Pronay Halder in different stages of the season, ATK climbed their way above the defending champions to finish second. And now, only Bengaluru FC stand in their way for their first final since 2016.
LEAGUE RECORD: 34 points | 10W, 4D, 4L | 33 goals | 9 clean sheets
TOP SCORERS: Roy Krishna (14 goals), David Williams, Edu Garcia (5 goals)
Despite securing a berth in the playoffs for the third straight season, Bengaluru FC hasn’t been the same. After topping the league for two seasons and winning the final in 2018/19, The Blues were favourites to dominate the league again. But a failure to convert chances, lack of consistency and pressure on talisman Sunil Chhetri for goals backfired.
A lot of the credit for the third-place finish goes to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu‘s Golden Glove-winning 10 clean sheets. Their league-best record of conceding just 13 goals from 18 matches carried them through to the playoffs, as their efforts in the opposite end were disastrous.
After losing Venezuelan Miku, Carles Cuadrat couldn’t find a suitable partner for Chhetri, and despite Deshorn Brown’s efforts, they scored just 22 goals this season. Only bottom-placed sides — Hyderabad FC (21 goals) and NorthEast United (14 goals)— have scored less in the league.
With players like Udanta Singh, Ashique Kuruniyan, and Raphael Augusto underperforming and the team being winless in their last three matches in all competitions, Cuadrat might need to come up with something special to overpower ATK on Sunday. If they fail, it will be Bengaluru FC’s first trophyless season in their six-year existence.
LEAGUE RECORD: 30 points | 8W, 6D, 4L | 22 goals | 10 clean sheets
TOP SCORER: Sunil Chhetri (9 goals)
It’s been a fairytale season for Chennaiyin FC where they have risen from their own ashes in the last three months. Whilst they were floundering second from bottom in the league table at the end of November, no one would have even dared to dream of a playoff spot. But then it happened.
The management appointed former Bolton Wanderers manager Owen Coyle after the departure of manager John Gregory, under whom Chennaiyin had scored just four goals, conceded 10, and won just once in six matches. After Coyle’s arrival, the team picked up 24 points from 12 matches.
Chennaiyin FC dropped their pragmatic approach and imbibed a dynamic high-pressing style that brought out the best from the attacking quartet of Nerijus Valskis, Rafael Crivallero, Lallianzuala Chhangte, and Andre Schmerbi. Coyle also employed traditional right back Edwin Vanspaul in midfield with Anirudh Thapa, which did wonders despite an admitted “element of risk”.
In the business end of the season, the Machans eased past Mumbai City FC with a crucial Lucian Goian volley and maintained an eight-match unbeaten run with a staggering tally of 24 goals. Although they face FC Goa, the enthusiasm that Coyle has brought with him might just help Chennaiyin FC script their own Leicester City story.
LEAGUE RECORD: 29 points | 8W, 5D, 5L | 32 goals | 4 clean sheets
TOP SCORERS: Nerijus Valskis (13 goals), Rafael Crivellaro (7 goals)
February 29, Saturday: Chennaiyin FC vs FC Goa (in Chennai)
March 1, Sunday: Bengaluru FC vs ATK (in Bengaluru)
March 7, Saturday: FC Goa vs Chennaiyin FC (in Goa)
March 8, Sunday: ATK vs Bengaluru FC (in Kolkata)
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