ISL 2021-22 Stories: ATK Mohun Bagan return to where they belong, Sunil Chhetri scripts history and more

Bengaluru FC suffered a setback, whereas the Kerala Blasters got their season back on track courtesy of a tight victory against SC East Bengal.

The 2021-22 season of the Indian Super League (ISL) is entering what would ideally be termed a tense home stretch. None of the qualification spots have been claimed so far but that hasn’t led to a lack of entertainment.

In the past week alone, 27 goals were scored in eight matches and there were plenty of moments that made people collective gasp in awe. The week saw ATK Mohun Bagan post a brace of victories. Mumbai City FC continued their resurgence too, while Hyderabad FC did enough to keep themselves perched at the summit.

Bengaluru FC suffered a setback, whereas the Kerala Blasters got their season back on track courtesy of a tight victory against SC East Bengal. Chennaiyin FC, on the other hand, were trounced by FC Goa and dispensed with manager Bozidar Bandovic, saying that the manner of the defeat wasn’t something the club could stand and watch.

Without further ado, here is a look at all the drama that unfolded in the week gone by.

Who are you FC Goa and what have you done to your 2021-22 version?

For much of this season, FC Goa have been the most aesthetically pleasing side in the ISL. They have passed the ball around efficiently, they have stitched together neat patterns in different areas of the pitch and have created truckloads of chances. All that has been missing is a constant supply of goals – a facet that boomeranged back to them during their annihilation of Chennaiyin FC.

The encounter, which pitted a defensively resolute outfit (at least on paper and based on the manager’s inclination) against a side misfiring in the final third, could have easily meandered into a damp squib. The Marina Machans tried everything to ensure that happened. This time, though, the Gaurs just had too much firepower in their ranks.

They had 17 shots on goal throughout the encounter, of which seven hit the target. Four of those made the net ripple, with the other goal coming via a Narayan Das deflection.

Their movement was incisive, their decision-making in the attacking third was sublime and everything flowed through Jorge Ortiz like it was always meant to. The Marina Machans aided the Gaurs’ endeavour by unfurling the white flag quite early but this was still a brash FC proclamation that they can tear opposition units to smithereens.

Prima facie, it might sound ludicrous that a team blessed with such attacking quality has such a problem in finding the net. But before the match against Chennaiyin FC, the Gaurs had scored three or more goals just once this season – that too against a creaky SC East Bengal defence and in a game where FC Goa shipped three goals as well.

So, this display could be a false dawn. FC Goa have been down that path many a time this campaign already. Or, it could be a precursor of what is to come till the season winds up. The Gaurs, barring any catastrophic results at the top, will not make the semi-final.

Yet, if they keep playing this way, they will have a say in who gets there. And, after a largely rudderless and toothless term, they finally have something to get their teeth stuck into.

Tell the rest of the ISL that Mumbai City FC are back

Last week, we spent a lot of our time discussing how Mumbai City FC, albeit in scratchy fashion, got across the line against Chennaiyin FC. To many (including us), it was the sort of victory that could have rejuvenated what had predominantly become a stuttering campaign.

Yet, there was a tinge of scepticism. Not because a single game rarely decides the outcome of a grueling ISL season, but also because there wasn’t much evidence to back up the notion of the Islanders returning to their best.

All of that changed, though, when the defending champions clashed swords with Odisha FC. The tentativeness that marred them during the middle of the term, magically disappeared. The attacking verve that had defined their early season form, reemerged and they only conceded a solitary goal – that too after the result had been put beyond doubt.

More importantly, it was vital that the Islanders followed up their positive result against Chennaiyin FC with a resounding victory. Not only does this tell them that they can dominate the ISL landscape again, it also warns the rest of the league that Mumbai City FC, despite a patchy period, are back to where they would want to be.

Having said that, there were a couple of shaky moments, especially in the first half where Mumbai City FC’s defensive deficiencies came to the fore. With their style, that will be commonplace too. The key, though, is that they found a way to offset it adequately – via a combination of last-ditch defending and most crucially, goals at the other end.

The Islanders’ slump has been characterised by concession of soft goals and the drying up of goals in the attacking third. A bit of that still remains but you can’t help but feel that that could be a thing of the past, moving forward.

Sunil Chhetri scripts history but Bengaluru FC stumble

The build-up to Bengaluru FC’s tussle against Hyderabad FC was, rather unsurprisingly, dominated by their respective star strikers. Sunil Chhetri, who has sparked into form lately, found himself on 49 ISL goals, with his counterpart Bartholomew Ogbeche boasting a similar tally.

From that perspective, the Indian national team captain did enough to nudge ahead in the race and become the first footballer to register 50 goals in the ISL. The result, though, was something Bengaluru FC could have done without.

The Blues, quite uncharacteristically, looked lacklustre against Hyderabad FC. There were phases where their defence switched off and they paid the price. Both of Hyderabad FC’s goals came after lapses in concentration.

While there was indecision around the marking for Javier Siverio’s opener, there was a clear lack of game awareness when HFC took a quick free-kick and Joao Victor curled the ball into the bottom corner.

For what it’s worth, there was no compromise on the Blues’ attacking adventure. They continued pushing and probing but couldn’t find the clinical edge to mount a comeback. Towards the end, Chhetri capitalised on his moment but that was hardly enough as Hyderabad FC secured three points.

The result, apart from bursting the Bengaluru FC bubble, could have implications on the race for the top four too. The Blues only have four games remaining and have also been leapfrogged by Mumbai City FC.

They could still qualify, considering they have a lot of pedigree in their squad. It’s just that that task has become significantly arduous. Not because of the points they need to accumulate, but also because bouncing back from a defeat, especially after a nine-game unbeaten streak is quite difficult.

ATK Mohun Bagan return to where they ought to be

Before the season began, ATK Mohun Bagan splashed plenty of cash, brought on board arguably the best footballer in the ISL (Hugo Boumous) and perhaps the best Indian goalkeeper (Amrinder Singh). Their season started off on a sound note too and they were immediately dubbed worthy title contenders. But then, the wobble began – a wobble that Juan Ferrando has managed to stabilise.

By virtue of those victories, ATK Mohun Bagan comfortably sit second on the points table, only two points behind Hyderabad FC and with two matches in hand. Twitter @atkmohunbagan

In terms of results, there was nothing out of the ordinary this week. The Mariners won the two games they played (it has become a bit of a recurring theme, to be honest). The important bit, though, was that one of those was against Hyderabad FC – a side largely considered as favourites for the ISL crown.

During that encounter, there were patches where they were put under pressure. But they held their own, waited for their chances on the counter-attack and then pounced. They also exploited the space Hyderabad FC’s full-backs usually leave behind, indicating that they were up to scratch tactically.

A few days later, they disdainfully dispatched NorthEast United FC’s challenge. While the Highlanders haven’t covered themselves in glory this season, they managed to surge ahead, meaning that the Mariners’ resilience was tested to the hilt.

By virtue of those victories, ATK Mohun Bagan comfortably sit second on the points table, only two points behind Hyderabad FC and with two matches in hand. For all intents and purposes, this is where the Mariners ought to be.

They have, unlike many other teams, flexed their financial muscles consistently and should, at least from that standpoint, be a constant fixture when the knockout stages roll into town,

For a brief while, that was under a massive cloud. Not anymore. If anything, this again looks ATK Mohun Bagan’s title to lose.

The Kerala Blasters are not going away easily

A couple of weeks ago, the Kerala Blasters succumbed to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Bengaluru FC. They followed it up with an edgy 2-1 victory against NorthEast United FC but when they lost to Jamshedpur FC (3-0 at that), there were a few worried glances across the board.

On performances alone, this wasn’t enough to make the Kerala Blasters fear the worst. Yet, as far as history is concerned, this is a circumstance the Tuskers have found themselves in countless times. And have, rather unwittingly, made a mess of it. From that perspective, the result against SC East Bengal was the ideal tonic for their possible ailments.

It wasn’t a free-flowing game and this was far from being a vintage Kerala Blasters performance. They didn’t create a lot and left the back door open, meaning that a team other than SC East Bengal might have optimised the Tuskers’ accommodativeness. In the end, though, none of the aforementioned mattered as the Kerala Blasters secured three points.

These points, apart from propelling them into the top three, also ensured that their week, which began with a thumping defeat to the Red Miners, ended on a relatively decent footing.

Had it been any other club, a couple of defeats, even at this stage of the season, would not have caused a furrowed brow. After all, winning and losing is a part of sport. For the Kerala Blasters, though, it only makes them relive some of their worst moments in the ISL – moments you felt weren’t going to materialise this season but moments they have been flirting with lately.

So, this is where the Blasters stand now. They have managed to overcome a slight blip and now have only five league games to brood over. At 26 points, even a couple of victories could guarantee them a spot in the semi-final.

The ball should, in all likelihood, be in the Kerala Blasters’ court. But this is the Kerala Blasters we are talking about. They aren’t pulling away and they aren’t going away that easily either. This campaign will reach a closure at some point (obviously it will).

Until then, though, it remains an opportunity to speculate. And, of course, enjoy the thrill-a-minute ride that a Kerala Blasters season brings.

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