ISL 2021-22 Stories: East Bengal finally break jinx, NorthEast United's struggles continue and more

Here is a look at what transpired in the ISL 2021-22 in the past few days.

Shashwat Kumar January 24, 2022 09:49:08 IST
ISL 2021-22 Stories: East Bengal finally break jinx, NorthEast United's struggles continue and more

Naorem Mahesh Singh scored two goals as East Bengal defeated FC Goa. Image: Twitter/@IndSuperLeague

Much like the previous week, this week also saw a few COVID-19 induced disruptions in the Indian Super League. But when the matches came to fruition, it provided a spectacle like it always does.

ATK Mohun Bagan returned to the fold with a hard-fought stalemate against Odisha FC, whereas SC East Bengal, who last won in the ISL in February 2021, tasted victory against FC Goa. The Gaurs’ struggles continued as they failed to get past Bengaluru FC too, and they are now 4 points adrift of the top four, despite having played 13 games so far.

Without further ado, here is a look at what transpired in the ISL in the past few days.

East Bengal finally win an ISL fixture

347 days, 16 matches, nearly a year of football and four different coaches (although Renedy Singh was interim manager) – that was all it took for East Bengal to register a victory in the ISL. The aforementioned sequence cost Manolo Diaz and Robbie Fowler their jobs, with Mario Rivera being the latest to be installed at the helm.

Owing to COVID-19 quarantine rules, though, Rivera wasn’t present in the dugout as East Bengal scraped to draws against Bengaluru and Mumbai City FC, and narrowly lost out to Jamshedpur FC. However, he must have been grinning from ear to ear, especially when he saw his players exerting the kind of commitment their passionate fan base has been crying out for.

From that perspective alone, it felt poetic that when Rivera was finally present on the touchline, East Bengal produced their best performance of the season. It came against FC Goa too, highlighting that the Red and Gold Brigade can be a handful when they get things right.

If pure numbers are considered, there wasn’t a lot that East Bengal did. They had only two shots on target and four shots altogether. They were restricted to 28% possession and had a pass accuracy rate of only 57%.

What they did do though, was they ran their socks off. They competed for every loose ball, made it as difficult for FC Goa to play out from the back and ultimately, capitalized on the opportunities that came their way.

While it would be naive to expect every other team in the league to be as accommodative as the Gaurs were, it was still an illustration that even passing-oriented sides could be pressurized into elementary errors.

By virtue of that victory, East Bengal also propelled themselves into 10th position, which considering their fortunes this campaign, is a massive achievement.

It doesn’t really mean anything as far as the semi-final race is concerned because, well, the Red and Gold Brigade find themselves lifetimes away from the top four. But after everything they have been through, the fact that they can compete against the ISL’s biggest gunslingers, should mean plenty to their fan base.

NorthEast United reaching a point of no return

The previous week was all about a team marooned in the lower trenches finding a way to gain three points and lift themselves off the foot of the table. Based on how East Bengal had been playing and how unlucky NorthEast United FC were on occasions, you might’ve bet on the latter to be on an upward curve.

Instead, the Highlanders have been the outfit that has slipped further into the wilderness and as things stand, is evaporating whatever little optimism they have generated over the course of the season.

Unlike many, NorthEast United actually played a couple of games in the week – against Chennaiyin FC and Odisha FC. On both those instances, though, their shortcomings stuck out like a sore thumb.

They weren’t very creative offensively. They kept feeding the ball to their wingers but lacked any sort of coherent movement from their central striker. The midfield also lacked invention, with Hernan Santana often waging a lone battle in the middle third.

The only positive that accrued was when Marcelinho and Marco Sahanek made their debuts for the Highlanders. Neither affected the outcome of the clash against the Marina Machans but showed glimpses that they could provide some sort of momentum moving forward.

The alarming bit is that NorthEast United, despite their emphasis on a stingy defensive line, have simply not been good enough. Individual mistakes that Khalid Jamil had supposedly eradicated last season have resurfaced in almost every match, whereas the gaps between their defensive and midfield lines has also been exploited by teams. That their goalkeepers have produced howlers regularly hasn’t helped their case either.

In a nutshell, this is a team in turmoil – a team that can outrun, outmaneuver and outlast any team in the ISL but also an outfit that rarely packages their best attributes for the entirety of an ISL fixture.

From that standpoint, it isn’t a surprise that they sit rooted to the bottom of the table. And, with each passing defeat, you feel they are inching towards a point of no return, provided they haven’t plummeted to that nadir already.

Sunil Chhetri breaks his ISL duck for the season

Till last season, there was a sense of normalcy to the ISL. Matches were going ahead as scheduled, there were no COVID-19 cases in the bio-bubble and of course, Sunil Chhetri was scoring for fun.

In 2021-22, none of the aforementioned had materialized until the Indian national team skipper rocked up against FC Goa and bent the narrative to his liking.

For those expecting description of a vintage Chhetri performance and an all-marauding Bengaluru, the rest of the summation might come as a bit of disappointment. Not because the Blues looked second-best for large parts of their encounter against the Gaurs, but because Chhetri, who snapped his goal-less streak, wasn’t at his absolute best either.

Yet, he did what all good strikers do. When the chance presented itself, he composed himself and found the back of the net. He even had time to clinch the winner and on any other occasion, might’ve seen the ball cannon off the woodwork and beyond the goal-line, rather than bounce away to safety.

Elsewhere on the pitch, a lot of the familiar frailties plagued Bengaluru again. They lacked ideas in the middle third, seemed devoid of movement up front and relied on individual brilliance to bail them out. Oh, by the way, they imploded defensively to hand FC Goa the lead in the first half.

Speaking of the Gaurs, well, they also produced a near replica of their recent performances. There was attacking endeavour and they never died wondering. But the goals, which have been in short supply lately, continued evading them.

Thus, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that this fixture, which has been the flagship ISL game over the past couple of years, has perhaps dwindled in significance. Moreover, it hinted that they might not be relevant in the top four conversations either.

From that perspective, maybe a freer scoring Chhetri could ease Bengaluru’s woes in the short term. FC Goa, meanwhile, would bite your hand off if any ISL-proven striker became available in the market. That, in itself, tells you how far the mighty have fallen this season.

ATK Mohun Bagan play out stalemate against Odisha

Before Sunday, ATK Mohun Bagan had last played an ISL fixture on 5 January, 2022. That game, which ended in a draw against title contenders Hyderabad FC, was the perfect illustration that the Mariners were buying into Juan Ferrando’s philosophy.

In an ideal world, any manager would love a break (sans the footballing drama) to implement his style. On the break front, Ferrando got that when countless ATK Mohun Bagan matches were postponed. But when COVID-19 is added into the mix, it became an uncomfortable quandary for all parties involved.

Nevertheless, the Mariners showcased excellent application and temperament to bounce back against Odisha. Not only were they solid defensively (they kept a clean sheet for the first time since 27 November 2021), they looked like a side that had hardly missed a beat.

Apart from that, there is a feeling that things are starting to fall into place for ATK Mohun Bagan. Tiri, who began the season battling injury, has grown into his own lately. The return of Sandesh Jhingan (though he is yet to feature) seems to have injected positivity into the team, whereas Carl McHugh has also proven his worth whenever called upon.

Upfront, Roy Krishna hasn’t started banging in the goals like he usually does but seems to be getting close to his best. Liston Colaco remains an entertainer on the left wing, with Manvir Singh tirelessly working on the other flank.

As things stand, the Mariners only find themselves placed 7th – just a couple of points ahead of Bengaluru, who have largely flattered to deceive. ATK Mohun Bagan, though, have at least a couple of games in hand, meaning that they can easily catapult themselves higher up the table. And, the early signs are that they might just be able to do so.

Odisha, on the other hand, continued to blow hot and cold through another game week. Against NorthEast United, their attacking players thrived and they posted a comfortable 2-0 victory. Against the Mariners, they didn’t fare much worse, although they seemed to lack a clinical edge in the offensive third in Aridai Suarez and Jonathas’ absence.

That aside, they seem to have hurtled over an inevitable mid-season managerial change. The new coach has not assumed the reins per se but the new manager bounce is evident by the hard yards the Juggernauts are putting in.

For the first time in a while, there is enough to build on. The problem, though, is that they had a similar situation post the watershed result against Mumbai City and squandered it. Thus, the onus is now on them to prove that this is not another false dawn. As far as clicking into gear is concerned, well, they couldn’t have picked a more opportune juncture.

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