We’re almost midway through the fourth season of the Indian Super League – one of Asia’s biggest domestic football tournaments. This time, there have been ten teams, as opposed to the usual 8 – with new entrants Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC already playing like they belong. 42 matches have been played over the last two months. Bengaluru FC, the I-League Champions, are the current leaders with 6 wins out of 9 matches, while the perpetually underperforming Delhi Dynamos are last by a margin, winning just 1 out of their 8 games.
Here, we will concentrate on three of the most interesting teams in the league right now. They aren’t the leaders, but their narrative could well make this ISL a memorable one.
NORTH EAST UNITED FC
The John Abraham-owned outfit once again hasn’t had the best of starts to the ISL. It is placed ninth, just one spot over the Delhi team. North East United FC has started all the seasons as the dark horses – the fairytalers that could upset the established apple cart. They’ve finished last in two out of three completed seasons so far and have never qualified for the playoffs. Yet, their 2018 schedule promises better things, after they managed just one win in 7 games in 2017. Much of it is down to their new technical advisor and stand-in coach, Avram Grant – the former Chelsea manager who has been brought in to salvage a potentially fatal season. After three consecutive losses, North East United FC started the New Year with a massive win over the dangerous Coro-inspired FC Goa at home. Grant has immediately made a difference and the 2-1 win should serve the team well – it has their next two games at home and would be looking to widen the gap at the bottom half of the table. With only 4 goals in 8 games, Grant will be looking to strengthen their intent – and hope that they don’t suffer any more massive 5-0 defeats like the one against FC Pune City in December. Could he perhaps kick-start one of the most remarkable comebacks seen in ISL history?
MUMBAI CITY FC
The Mumbai team’s results haven’t fluctuated as much as the North East team. The Alexandra Guimaraes-coached squad has shown as much promise as they did last season, where they topped the group stages and reached the semifinals for the first time, propelled by Diego Forlan. They have done well under Guimaraes and are currently placed fourth in the league table after 9 games – winning 4, drawing 2 and losing 3 so far. They have scored 13 goals, and have accounted for some of the most exciting games of the league so far – top of the list being their recent pulsating 2-2 draw against Jamshedpur FC. They are merely 4 points off the leaders and 2 behind derby rivals FC Pune City. Perhaps the most anticipated match of the month will be their face-off against leaders Bengaluru FC at home on January 18th – a match that could well propel them into business for a top-two position. They are provisionally fourth, given that Goa FC – the most prolific team in the league – is only a point behind with a game in hand. This second half of the group stages will depend highly on their goalie, Amrinder Singh, who has so far made a league-high 31 saves in these 9 games.
The high-flying Chennai team was only minutes away from topping the table on Sunday in a straightforward game before they carelessly let the desperate Delhi Dynamos equalize late with a goal. It ended a miserable 6-match winless streak for Delhi and meant that Chennaiyin would still remain a point behind Bengaluru FC despite losing the least number of games in the league so far (2). The 2015 ISL Champions are a difficult team to beat and they have proved that repeatedly, especially with an away win against Bengaluru this season. Twice in the first three seasons, Chennaiyin FC have defied their schedule to reach the playoffs – they won in 2015 after finishing third in the group stages and topped the table in the first season. They are arguably the best team in ISL’s short history so far – the misfiring ATK 2017-18 have accounted for this comparison – and are within shooting distance of reaching the semifinals without too much of an issue. Coach John Gregory will have high hopes, especially after the impressive performance of homegrown Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has fired in 6 goals already this season. Their upcoming match against FC Pune City on Saturday will give us a fair idea of their ability to bounce back after a disappointing performance. One suspects, though, that despite Pune’s fourth position, the battle is actually on for top spot – which will be up for grabs for the next two months.