Fifty-six matches, 176 goals and a couple of managerial sackings later, there are four teams standing as the second edition of Indian Super League enters the decisive knockout stage. The final four has a familiar feel to it as defending champions Atletico de Kolkata are joined by last year’s losing semifinalists Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa. Roberto Carlos’ Delhi Dynamos are the newcomers to the playoff stage, taking the spot vacated by runners-up of 2014, Kerala Blasters.
Unlike last year, however, there has not been a standout team in this year’s league stage. Except the Blasters, all seven teams looked like they could have made it this far as a topsy-turvy league campaign drew to a close. Atletico and Chennaiyin were comfortably the better teams throughout the 2014 edition, but their route to the semifinals has been anything but straight-forward this year. FC Pune City and NorthEast United missed out narrowly, despite putting together some good results in patches. Mumbai City FC, arguably the best team on paper, faltered yet again and Kerala Blasters never recovered from their horror start that led to the sacking of head coach Peter Taylor mid-way through the campaign.
A league campaign that was more unpredictable, more free-scoring than the inaugural edition sees FC Goa take on Delhi Dynamos in the first semi-final, with Chennaiyin and Atletico battling it out for the other spot in the final.
Here’s a look at how the four teams have made it this far.
Story of the season: Perhaps the most consistent and attractive team of the season, FC Goa topped the table with a dramatic 3-2 win over Delhi in their last league game, taking their points tally to 25. The highlight of their season was undoubtedly the 7-0 drubbing of Mumbai City at the ever-noisy Fatorda. Goa, despite injuries to key players and a couple of 4-0 defeats, showed great character to bounce back every time they were down.
What the team got right: A great spread of goals, and not over-dependence on one player. Reinaldo is the only player from FC Goa in the top 15 goalscorers this season with seven goals, and yet Goa have scored the most number of goals in the league – 29 in their 14 matches. Mandar Dessai, Jonathan Lucca, Dudu Omagbemi and Thongkhosiem Haokip have all chipped in with three goals each this season. Zico’s side arguably play the most expansive style of football, and that is the reason why despite losing two games by a four-goal margin, FC Goa reached the final four as table-toppers.
Turning point: After starting the season with a win and a draw, FC Goa looked hapless in their defeat to Chennaiyin FC at the Fatorda, sleepwalking their way to a 4-0 defeat. Looking back, that defeat seemed to have spurred them on as they went on a run of just one loss in the next seven games, including the 7-0 thrashing of Mumbai City at home.
Key player: Leo Moura, the 37-year old Brazilian playmaker who has ignited this year’s ISL with some incisive passing. He leads the assist chart for the season with eight to his name and will be the key for Goa to unlock Delhi’s defence over the two legs.
ATLETICO DE KOLKATA
Story of the season: It didn’t look likely for a while that the champions of 2014 will get a chance to defend their title. They got off to a very good start with seven points from their first three games but then went on a run of three consecutive 1-0 defeats, ending up with a tally of 10 points from their first eight games. Perhaps safe in the knowledge that their last four league matches were at home, Atletico hit peak form towards the end of the campaign, losing just one of their last six games – a dead rubber of sorts against Mumbai City.
What the team got right: Their water-tight defence from previous season eluded them this year and Antonio Habas’ team was ravaged by injuries. Iain Hume’s form at the start of the season, coupled with marquee player Helder Postiga not even completing 90 minutes in the league, meant Atletico struggled for goals early on. But Habas persisted with Hume up top and provided enough attacking flair around him in the form of South African Sameehg Doutie and Spaniard Javi Lara. The goals flowed towards the end of the season.
Turning point: The 4-1 win in Mumbai was undoubtedly the pivotal moment in the season, not just because it snapped a three match losing streak for Atletico, but it also saw their star player Hume finally get going. After a classy hat-trick at DY Patil that night, Hume went on to score 10 goals in the league campaign as ISL’s player of the year in 2014 made his reputation count.
Key player: For all obvious reasons, it has to be Iain Hume. In the absence of Postiga, the Canadian striker has stepped for Habas’ side big time and will be looking to continue his rich vein of form in the knock-stages.
Story of the season: Another team that looked down and out mid-way through the campaign, Marco Materazzi turned it around for Chennaiyin FC. After experimenting with his lineups early in the campaign – which did not seem to be yielding the results – Materazzi got it spot on when it mattered, as Chennaiyin finished the league campaign with a four match winning run, scoring 12 goals and conceding just one. They had to wait till their last match of the season to book their playoff spot, but did it in style with a clinical 1-0 win over FC Pune City.
What the team got right: After searching for balance between attack and defence, Materazzi made a tactical switch to play Stiven Mendoza and Jeje Lalpekhlua up front and rested Elano, who was beginning to look jaded midway through the season. That worked wonders for Chennaiyin as the two exciting, pacy forwards often combined brilliantly. The form of midfielder Raphael Augusto at the base of midfield was perhaps the most underrated aspect of Chennaiyin’s charge to the playoff spots. And after struggling defensively last year, Chennaiyin FC finish the league campaign with the tightest defence, conceding just 17 goals.
Turning point: Consistency was the biggest problem for Chennaiyin in the first half of the campaign, with performances varying from the extreme of 4-0 demolition job of Goa to the run of three consecutive defeats. All that changed as Kerala Blasters came visiting to the Marina Arena and saw Mendoza in inspired form – scoring his second hattrick of the season. The aforementioned run of four consecutive wins had begun.
Key player: Once again, the choice is quite obvious – partly because of Augusto’s injury which has ruled him out of the semifinals . It has to be Stiven Mendoza. The Colombian has once again lit up the ISL with his marauding runs, constant pressing and exquisite finishes – making him the league’s top scorer ahead of Hume.
Story of the season: Away from the fluctuating fortunes of Kolkata and Chennai, and the goal-scoring exploits of Goa, Delhi Dynamos’ league campaign remained fairly sober throughout. There were a few late goals, quite a few draws (including a hat-trick of 1-1 draws at home) and some resolute defending as Roberto Carlos’ side sealed a semifinal spot without much of a fuss with two games to go.
What the team got right: Despite pre-season doubts over whether Florent Malouda will be able to handle the tag of a marquee player, the Frenchman stepped up brilliantly and raked up eight assists – joint highest along with Goa’s Leo Moura. Goal-scoring is a concern for Roberto Carlos’ side, having scored only 18 goals despite having the most number of shots (202) in the league stage, but led by Riise at the back, Delhi have been resolute in defence and have found some form going forward with Adil Nabi getting more chances at the end of the season.
Turning point: It is difficult to pick a turning point in the season when their form and league position did not fluctuate much, but the 3-1 win against FC Pune City to break the run of three dodgy 1-1 draws has to be the point when Delhi established their credentials as playoff contenders. Their late, late equaliser against Mumbai was also crucial as a defeat after a run of draws could have put a spanner in their works.
Key player: Looking past Malouda, who will continue to create chances, Delhi needs one of their forwards to step up big time if they are to get past FC Goa. With three goals in the last five matches, Adil Nabi is slowly living up to his reputation and his form in front of goal could prove decisive in Delhi’s hunt for a place in the final.