Twenty-nine matches with 54 goals scored, 10 draws among which only two were goalless, 14 matches won by a solitary goal-margin — the underlying statistics of the Indian Super League’s third edition are a testament to the compelling and closely-contested battles which have captivated the football fans across the country.
Here's a look at how each club has fared at the halfway mark of the third season.
Atletico de Kolkata
Stability is often the key to consistency in football — a concept reiterated by the table toppers Atletico de Kolkata, who have 12 points from seven games. With a relatively unchanged first eleven from last season, Atletico de Kolkata has all but successfully transitioned from Antonio Habas’ leadership to Jose Molina’s ideology.
Due to Helder Postiga’s injury and Iain Hume’s continued run of poor form, goals have been hard to come by for Atletico, even when they have created a flurry of clear-cut chances. Atletico have struggled to adapt to their new home, taking only five points of a possible twelve, but their away form has been reassuring, especially their tendency to finish matches strongly in the second half.
Finishing chances with precision is something Molina’s side clearly need to work upon as the business end of the tournament approaches, for even the slightest amount of complacency could see other clubs leapfrog them.
Mumbai City FC
Mumbai City FC, one of the pre-tournament favourites, have lived up to their billing as they trail Atletico de Kolkata on goal difference only. Having successfully navigated a tiring fixture schedule with a depleted squad (owing to injuries and Bengaluru FC’s continued brilliance in the AFC Cup), Alexandre Guimaraes’ side are arguably the most diverse unit of the competition.
One of the most remarkable traits of Mumbai’s gameplay this season has been their ability to adapt their playing style on a match-to-match basis. Guimaraes’ side is equally comfortable while aggressively pressing, as it is during defending deep into their own half. Not only have the star-studded Mumbai City squad demonstrated its multi-dimensional attacking flair through the likes of Matias Defederico, Diego Forlan and Sony Norde, but have also shown the temperament to grind out wins in matches against Atletico de Kolkata and NorthEast United.
Guimaraes’ tactical acumen and calm presence on the touchline are Mumbai’s biggest assets as they aim to qualify for the knock-outs for the first time in three seasons.
Delhi Dynamos underwent a complete overhauled in terms of personnel during the off-season. They have only managed to win two games so far, yet sit on the third position having scored ten goals — the most by any club.
The Lions managed to forge together a four-match unbeaten run at the start of the tournament before losing to Atletico, however much of it was owing to luck. With Gianluigi Zambrotta in charge, it has been astounding to see the Delhi Dynamos struggle defensively and they have let in completely avoidable goals on a number of occasions.
In spite of finding the back of the net regularly, the Dynamos’ over-reliance on Florent Malouda’s playmaking and Marcelinho’s goal-scoring abilities could spell doom for their ‘top four’ chances.
One of the three clubs with ten points from seven matches, Chennaiyin FC have been a team of extremes. Marco Materazzi’s side has been a joy to watch on its good days, putting in flawless performances against the likes of FC Goa and NorthEast United, while showcasing lacklustre efforts against Delhi Dynamos and Kerala Blasters.
In the absence of Elano and Stiven Mendoza — the Golden Boot winners of the first two editions — Chennaiyin have found their goals from all across the field, from as many as six different goalscorers. After conceding five goals in their first two matches, Marco Materazzi tinkered with his personnel to shore up the defense — last year’s champions have only conceded twice since then.
While Hans Mulder has arguably been Chennaiyin’s most important player so far, Materazzi has yet again unearthed two raw diamonds in left-back Jerry Lalrinzuala and midfielder Siam Hangal — the talented youngsters are contenders for the ‘emerging player’ of the tournament.
NorthEast United FC
The Highlanders, with three wins in their first four matches, started their Indian Super League campaign with a flourish but have fizzled out in the last couple of weeks. They are in fifth in position with ten points thanks to their three match-winless streak.
With an interesting mix of experience and youth at his disposal, most notably in his central midfield of Romaric and Rowlin Borges, Nelo Vingada has had the NorthEast United play a slick brand of football, with possession-based chance creation as well as lightning fast counter-attacks.
The Latin American duo of Emiliano Alfaro and Nicolas Velez has forged an effective partnership upfront — the former leading the scoring charts with five goals. Katsumi Yusa has been yet another shrewd buy and the Mohun Bagan midfielder plays at the heart of NorthEast United’s attacking moves.
Vingada’s side has struggled to put away chances — a factor which cost them crucial points at home against Chennaiyin FC and Atletico de Kolkata. Subrata Paul’s mistakes below the bar have been equally detrimental to NorthEast’s chances and the Guwahati-based club must iron out the mistakes to qualify for the last four.
Kerala Blasters FC
Kerala Blasters’ campaign has perfectly epitomized the third edition of the ISL — a short supply of goals and a lack of entertainment. Steve Coppell’s side have scored the least number of goals so far (four in seven matches), even failing to register a shot on goal on two occasions.
Predictable build-ups have marred the Kochi outfit’s dominant possession-based play, with Coppell’s squad failing to back up their tenacity with quality in the final third. Coppell has constantly switched formations in a bid to rejig his side’s attacking ambitions but the Blasters’ tendency to take the foot off the pedal when they are dominating the game have led them to drop points.
Coppell’s team might have been mediocre going forward, but their compact shape and organized defence against every opposition is a huge positive for last season’s wooden spoon holders. Such has been the course of the tournament that Kerala Blasters’ defensive solidarity could take them all the way through to the semi-finals with a bit of luck in the second half of the season.
FC Goa picked themselves up from the bottom of the table with a win over FC Pune City in their last game and history suggests that Zico’s sides tend to play better during the business end of the season. But make no mistake, even Zico’s harshest critics could not have predicted the poor stretch of results which have dogged last season’s runners-up.
FC Goa’s defence has been particularly brittle all throughout the tournament and unlike past seasons, the attackers have failed to carve out wins by outscoring the opponents. Zico’s dogmatic tactical approach may have played a role in labelling the Goans as the worst defence in the league, having conceded eleven goals. However, it is their lack of cohesion and precision in front of goal which has been the root cause behind Goa’s troubles.
Zico’s men have created chances in large numbers, but the quality of those chances have been questionable, to say the least. With three defeats in three home games so far, Zico must soon find a solution to Goa’s overall ineptness, should they wish to replicate or better last season’s achievements.
FC Pune City
Despite the appointment of Habas (arguably the Indian Super League’s finest tactician in the first two seasons), signing of Mohamed Sissoko (the league’s youngest marquee player), and the convergence of one of the most diverse squads on paper, FC Pune City are struggling at the bottom of the league standings.
Having failed to win a match in close to a month, the Stallions have been languid in possession and lethargic without the ball. The lack of creativity in the Pune side has been starkly exposed time and again, with the side rarely creating quality chances in spite of registering 63 shots in their seven games.
With the race for the top four being a closely contested one, FC Pune City are still mathematically in contention, but Habas must orchestrate a miraculous change in his side for a positive change of fortunes.
A clear favourite for the title is yet to emerge this season. With only one point separating the middle four clubs in the league standings, it could be anybody’s game as the race for ‘knockout qualification’ is all set to go down to the wire.