On Saturday, March 17, four months after the fourth edition of the Indian Super League kicked off – for the first time with ten teams – the ISL Final will take place at the Sree Kantareeva Stadium in Bangalore. 94 matches have been played across ten States, and all roads have led to this final.
On Tuesday evening, FC Goa – easily the most unpredictable and exciting team of ISL 4 – was eliminated after losing 3-0 to the clinical, cool Chennaiyin FC. As it turns out, there is no doubt that two of the best teams of the season will be competing for the title on Saturday. It will be a South Indian derby of sorts – with the best team of the year, Bengaluru FC, slated to face the second-best of the year – Chennaiyin. After 64 years, two South Indian teams will be facing off in the Final of an Indian football tournament
PATHS TO THE FINAL:
Albert Roca’s I-League team made their ISL debut this season, and immediately, captain Sunil Chhetri and his comrades made an impact. Bengaluru have been the best “leader” in ISL’s four-year history – winning 13 out of their 18 games of the group stages and losing only four. They finished with a record 40 points, with just one draw to their names. To put things into context, let’s take a look at the group leaders of the first three seasons: Chennaiyin FC topped the group by winning 6 out of 14 games in ISL 1, FC Goa topped the group by winning 7 out of 14 in ISL 2, and Mumbai City topped the group by winning 6 out of 14 in ISL 3. None of them won more than 50 percent of games played. And yet Bengaluru finished heads and shoulders above the rest – with their loss to the Delhi Dynamos being the only real glitch in a comfortably dominant season so far. They dismantled Pune City with ease over the two-leg semifinal, conceding only one goal with captain Chhetri finishing off their rivals with a hat-trick at home.
John Gregory’s former ISL Champions (Chennaiyin won the title in ISL 2015) have arguably been one of the most consistent teams in the tournament’s short history. This year, they won 9 out of their 18 games – a performance that would have had them top any other season’s group stages. They lost only 4 – as much as Bengaluru FC – but drew 5 games, with a minor slump in February this year. They scored the least out of the top 4 teams (24 goals) in their 18 games. But 32 points and a last-day victory meant that they remained above a resurgent FC Goa and Pune City to qualify for the playoffs. Goa was a tricky semifinal opponent, but after conceding to Goa at the hour-mark in the first leg, Chennaiyin dominated the next 110 minutes of the two-leg tie, scoring 1 in Goa and then 3 at home after Goa started strongly again. Indian striker Jeje Lalpekhlua finished off Goa with a brace and will be the man to watch out for in Chennaiyin’s second final. After a disappointing 2016 season, where they finished second-last, the Super Machchans are back on top.
The last time these two faced each other at this very stadium in mid-December, the experienced Chennaiyin side came away with a last-gasp win against the home side to hand them their second defeat of the season. Jeje scored an early goal, only for Chhetri to equalize in the 85th minute, before Dhanpal Ganesh gave the visitors a late victory 1-2 on the night. This was before Bengaluru would go on their 10-match unbeaten streak and 5-match winning streak towards the end of the group stages.
The reverse tie was played in the first week of February this year, with Bengaluru in the midst of their streak. Chhetri found himself on the scoring sheet again in the dying minutes, but Bengaluru had already done the damage through top scorer Miku and Haokip for their first two goals. Despite Francesco Fernandes equalizing at the half-hour mark, the visitors – now the table leaders – came away with a convincing 3-1 victory.
No Chennaiyin striker finds himself in the top 5 goal-scorers of the season. Bengaluru has two representatives – Miku (14) is second on the list, and Chhetri is fifth (13). Jeje (9) is Chennaiyin’s top scorer and the only Chennaiyin player in the top-20.
Both Bengaluru and Chennaiyin have 8 clean sheets in 20 games. Currently, Bengaluru goalie Gurpreet Singh Sandhu is the leader in the Golden Glove Award standings – conceding a goal only every 111 minutes.
This will be the third time the two play against each other this season – and the most important time. Chennaiyin faces more of an uphill task after the final was shifted from Kolkata to Bengaluru last week – making this a “home match” for Chhetri’s team. Will Bengaluru win the title in their debut season (as they should, based on form)? Or will Chennaiyin prove its big-day credentials and pull off the upset of the year?
Either way, we are set for a cracking conclusion to the biggest-ever season of the Indian Super League.