The 2019-20 season of the Indian Super League has reached its home stretch and akin to its predecessors, it hasn’t been short of drama. More importantly though, despite only 16 games being left, the identity of three of the top four remains up in the air.
FC Goa, courtesy their 4-1 mauling of Hyderabad FC on the 5th of February 2020, became the first side to qualify and now seem primed to have a tilt at the top spot, which would guarantee them a place in next season’s AFC Champions League.
ATK and Bengaluru FC, meanwhile, are also close on the Gaurs’ heels and barring a calamitous collapse in the latter stages, the pair is expected to feature come March 2020.
On the other hand, the likes of Chennaiyin FC, Mumbai City FC and Odisha FC face a monumental task trying to outwit the others and seal a place in the play-offs. While the trio has showcased the capabilities to perch themselves among the ISL elite through the course of the season, the pressure of potential knock-out fixtures could prove potential banana skins.
Thus, at this juncture, the time seems ripe to delve into deeper analysis and chalk down the fixtures that could play a pivotal part as the race for the top four gathers pace.
#5 ATK vs Chennaiyin FC (16th February 2020)
After a lacklustre season in 2019-20, ATK have gotten their act together and now seem primed to finish in the top two. Players of the ilk of David Williams and Roy Krishna have taken to the ISL like a duck to water whereas Indians such as Michael Soosairaj, Prabir Das and Sumit Rathi have also impressed.
Thus, ATK represent one of the most well-oiled units in the league, meaning that Chennaiyin would have to dig deep into their reserves to fashion a result on the 16th of February 2020.
Fortunately for the Marina Machans though, they’ve gathered an enormous head of steam in recent weeks, especially after the arrival of Owen Coyle. The Irishman has gotten the side dancing to his tunes and has unlocked the vast attacking potential that existed in the squad.
Chennaiyin have won their last four matches and have scored 15 goals in the process. Hence, they could prove to a tough nut to crack for ATK, despite the latter having conceded only 4 times at home this term.
Furthermore, at this stage, Kerala Blasters remain the only side to inflict a home defeat on ATK, thereby highlighting the magnitude of Chennaiyin’s task.
Yet, with momentum on their side, the Marina Machans would hope to give a decent account of themselves and catapult themselves to at least a point.
However, even if they return empty-handed, they have enough scope to rectify their campaign elsewhere, although one feels they might want to underline their credentials with a stellar victory at a title contender.
#4 FC Goa vs Mumbai City FC (12th February 2020)
Mumbai City FC currently sit fourth in the table and enjoy a two-point advantage over Chennaiyin FC and Odisha FC, although the former has a game in hand over the Islanders.
Furthermore, Jorge Costa’s troops have a slightly tricky fixture to negotiate against Jamshedpur FC on the 6th of February, thereby leading to suggestions that looking at the encounter against the Gaurs could be a tad premature.
Yet, with the Red Miners struggling for goals and equally in strife when trying to keep things tight at the other end, one reckons that the Islanders, in all likelihood, would get the better of them.
As for the match at Fatorda, Mumbai might not be looking too fondly at that trip, despite having won their last away game against FC Goa. However, that 1-0 triumph had come about after the Gaurs had hammered the Islanders 5-1 in the first leg of last term’s semi-final.
Additionally, Mumbai have won just a solitary time against Goa in their last five meetings, meaning that their task could be cut out on the 12th of February, although the hosts might still be feeling the after-effects of Sergio Lobera’s departure.
On the flip side, a positive result at Fatorda could fill the Islanders’ sail with the requisite force as they look to end their ISL hoodoo.
And, while Mumbai might not have looked at a tussle on the road against Goa with delight at the start of their campaign, it now has the potential to shape their entire season.
#3 Chennaiyin FC vs Bengaluru FC (9th February 2020)
While the game at the Salt Lake Stadium on the 16th holds immense significance for Chennaiyin FC, the fixture at the Marina Arena a week prior is arguably a shade more vital.
Unlike their top-four rivals, the Marina Machans have a solitary home game, meaning that they end their season with three successive matches on the road. And, rather unenviably, the only encounter at the Marina Arena sees them welcome defending champions, Bengaluru FC.
Luckily for Chennaiyin though, the Blues have looked extremely patchy on their travels, having scored only 5 goals across the term. More worryingly for Bengaluru, they’ve not made the net bulge on the road since the 12th of December 2019.
Thus, there could be a possible opportunity for the Marina Machans to capitalise on the defending champions’ blues in front of goal and in the process, stamp their own goal-scoring pedigree on the contest.
And, while breaching a stubborn Bengaluru rear-guard is easier said than done, it is imperative that Chennaiyin continue their upturn in fortunes on the 9th of February and lay down another marker.
After all, they need to make the most of their only remaining home game and a failure to do so could lead to their season ending as a damp squib.
#2 Odisha FC vs Kerala Blasters (23rd February 2020)
Odisha FC endured a tumultuous start to their season. For the opening couple of games, the side found myriad ways to dig its own grave and while they arrested that slide against Mumbai City FC in October 2019, they still stuttered and stumbled until they stitched together a decent run through the middle phases.
Subsequently, they now find themselves in a position wherein the top four isn’t out of their grasp, although they have several peaks to scale before being able to achieve that particular conquest.
Unfortunately, though, the Juggernauts have had to navigate tougher fixtures as compared to their rivals, with that sequence ending against ATK on the 8th of February 2020.
And, though the aforementioned matches look extremely winnable on paper, one reckons that the Juggernauts’ final game could morph into a much more ticklish proposition.
For all their inconsistencies in 2019-20, the Blasters still seem an outfit that possess one great performance in them before the season culminates. In fact, their Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personalities could ultimately prove to be Odisha’s undoing.
Footballing logic suggests that the Juggernauts shouldn’t have too many problems dispatching Eelco Schattorie’s charges. Yet, the ISL doesn’t pay much heed to such notions.
And, though it might sound extremely far-fetched, Odisha might just be most nervous when locking horns with Kerala on the 23rd of February.
#1 Mumbai City FC vs Chennaiyin FC (21st February 2020)
Back in October 2019, the pair indulged in a dour 0-0 draw, wherein both sides failed to lay down the gauntlet considerably. The Islanders continued floundering for the proceeding weeks while Chennaiyin found themselves in the lower trenches.
However, a couple of months later, the teams represent two top-four contenders and a duo that seems hell-bent on nudging ahead at the expense of the other.
Thus, a titanic six-point shootout between Mumbai City FC and the Marina Machans at Mumbai seems fitting, especially considering it would be the former’s final fixture and the latter’s penultimate encounter.
Moreover, if both teams were to have their way, they would enter the game with just a couple of points separating them, meaning that a home victory would firmly close the door on the visitors’ qualification ambitions. On the other hand, a win for Chennaiyin would propel them above the Islanders and ensure them a spot in the top four.
Thus, on sheer weightage, the match at the Mumbai Football Arena is perhaps the most defining fixture that remains in the ISL. To add to that, there’s also the intriguing narrative of Costa wanting to prove that last season’s semi-final appearance wasn’t a fluke and Coyle hoping to restore the two-time champions among the higher echelons of the league, a place the club, in the Irishman’s words, ‘need to be’.
And, though plenty of games boast the ability to throw a spanner in the works of either team, even before they grapple each other on the 21st, one reckons that the contest at the Mumbai Football Arena could help resolve the ambiguity around the fourth spot, once and for all.