It took the 90th and final league game of the group stages of the fourth edition of the Indian Super League to reveal the team joining Bengaluru FC, Chennaiyin FC, and Pune City FC in the playoffs. 89 games and 244 goals later, FC Goa sealed their spot by defeating newcomers Jamshedpur FC 3-0, and finishing ahead of Pune in third place.
We are now down to the last week of the biggest ISL yet. With only the two-leg semifinals and the final to go, let’s take a quick look at the highlights of the most extensive group stages in ISL history:
Steve Coppell’s team were up to third place two weeks ago, while Sergio Lobero’s Goa struggled to find a way up from sixth place. And here we are. Jamshedpur needed to defeat FC Goa on home soil to go through in fourth place on Sunday night. The equation was clear: nothing less than a win would do. The strongest defense in ISL-4 versus the strongest frontline in ISL-4. Frankly, the chances of Goa’s attack failing were more than that of Jamshedpur’s defense giving way. In the end, however, it was ironic that it took the league’s tightest goalkeeper – India’s no. 1, no less – to decide the outcome of the do-or-die contest. Subrata Paul had 7 clean sheets for Jamshedpur thus far. In 7 minutes, he had done an Indian version of the infamous 2006 Zinedine Zidane brain-fade. It wasn’t a head-butt, but the goalie was dismissed for handling the ball outside his box. The sport is cruel, for it meant that Jamshedpur’s defense had to be compromised to accommodate a new goalkeeper. And it meant that Paul would be remembered for this gaffe – despite the fact that his rival goalie Naveen Kumar would be gifted a red card for the same offense 70 minutes later. By then, the match had been decided. And for the fourth time in a row, Paul would end up in a team that didn’t make the playoffs.
A SEASON OF FIRSTS
By defeating NorthEast United FC 1-0 in the final game after 52 days of not winning a single ISL match, ATK avoided the ignominy of becoming the first defending champion team to finish the next season at the bottom of the table. Chennaiyin, too, finished second-last in 2016 after winning ISL 2015. A day after interim manager Ashley Westwood – who had replaced Teddy Sheringham – stepped down, ATK pulled off a last-day escape act to finish above the Highlanders. This is the first season ATK has failed to make the playoffs.
NorthEast became the first ISL team to finish at the bottom of the table twice. They finished the first edition in eighth place, came fifth in the next two editions, and finished last this season. In doing so, the Highlanders are also the only team yet to make an ISL playoff week. All the other teams, barring Jamshedpur (who played their first season this year), have reached the playoffs at least once.
FC Bengaluru spent 14 out of the 18 weeks of the league stages at number 1 in the standings. The lowest they fell to was third place after MatchDay 8 – by when they had already lost 3 games. But they lost just 1 and drew just 1 out of their next 10 games to finish on a record 40 points.
SEMIFINAL 1: FC Pune City vs Bengaluru FC
Interestingly, the only team table toppers Bengaluru have drawn against this season is FC Pune City. They beat Pune away in December after conceding early and drew against them in February. Bengaluru have gone 8-match unbeaten streak right now in ISL, and there is no reason this will change on Wednesday when they travel to the Shiv Chattrapati Sports Stadium in Pune. Come Sunday, when Pune travel to Bengaluru, the tie might have just been decided. The most expensive player in ISL-4, Miku, is the second highest scorer in the league so far with 14 goals to his name. Captain Chhetri has 10 goals – they have combined to score 24 of the team’s 35 goals. Miku will want to overtake Goa’s Coro over the next three games – Coro is on 18 and has shown no signs of stopping yet.
Prediction: Chhetri’s team is unstoppable. They will win both legs and play the final next week.
SEMIFINAL 2: FC Goa vs Chennaiyin FC
By winning their last game, Goa earned themselves a match against 2015 Champions, Chennaiyin. A draw would have meant that Goa would have to face the dangerous and next-to-unbeatable Bengaluru FC. But Goa, who scored 12 goals in their last three matches of the league stages, now start as favorites at home on Saturday against the solid but unglamorous Chennaiyin team. Despite finishing second in the ISL table, Chennaiyin, in contrast to an in-form Goa, has scored only 4 goals in their last 5 games – coming close to dropping out of the top 3, if not for their win against a weak Mumbai City FC in their final game. The 1-0 win took them to second, just two points ahead of Goa – who they will be wary of, given their own trouble with scoring goals last month.
Prediction: FC Goa will win at home, but might concede a goal. Chennaiyin will have to play out of their skin next week to outscore Goa.
Eventually, it could be the final we all want. After their 4-3 thriller late last year, Goa will take on table-toppers Bengaluru in the Final of ISL-4.