And then there were two. After twenty rounds of back and forth action and two-legged semi-finals, Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan will fight for the 2021 ISL trophy at the Fatorda Stadium in Margao.
However, it is not at all surprising. Both clubs dug deep into their pockets to get the best players on board. Rather, if they didn't make it to the ISL final, Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan would have only themselves to blame.
No disrespect to Sergio Lobera or Antonio Habas. Both the Spanish managers have done well to imbibe their style of play. But if you have the best set of players in the ISL, the task becomes considerably easier.
Mumbai City FC splash the cash in the summer transfer market
Mumbai City FC parted ways with their entire foreign contingent. After signing former FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera, the club invoked Hugo Boumous's release clause by paying a hefty amount to the Gaurs.
The previous season, Boumous netted 11 goals and had 10 assists. The Frenchman continued his sublime form with Mumbai City FC by bagging 3 goals and 7 assists.
FC Goa captain Mandar Rao Dessai followed suit. For a team that already had Indian national team players like Rowllin Borges, Raynier Fernandes, and Amrinder Singh, Mandar's addition only strengthened their domestic contingent.
Mourtada Fall and Ahmed Jahouh had played under Sergio Lobera even before they stepped foot in India. So, not a single eyebrow was raised when they signed for Mumbai City FC.
Jahouh made the most number of tackles (182) last season and repeated the feat this season (165) as well. Fall made a mammoth 191 clearances alongside 67 tackles last season.
Although the number has dropped this season (128 clearances and 49 tackles), his commanding presence at the back has not.
With the ISL making it mandatory for clubs to sign at least one AFC-affiliated foreign player, Mumbai City FC set their eyes on 2019/20 A-League's second-highest goalscorer Adam le Fondre.
The Englishman scored 39 goals in 57 appearances for his previous club Sydney FC. For Mumbai City FC, le Fondre has bagged 11 goals in 20 matches so far.
Opportunistic ATK Mohun Bagan retain their core and make shrewd signings in the January transfer window
ATK Mohun Bagan inherited a squad that had won the ISL title previously. Unlike Mumbai City FC, the challenge posed to them was to retain the players representing the now-disbanded ATK side.
Foreign players like Edu Garcia, David Williams, Roy Krishna, Javi Hernandez and Carl McHugh remained loyal. Indian names like Arindam Bhattacharja, Pritam Kotal, Michael Soosairaj, Sumit Rathi, Prabir Das, and Jayesh Rane continued their services for ATK Mohun Bagan.
However, the departure of Victor Mongil and Agus Garcia meant the club needed centre-backs of the same caliber as them. Sandesh Jhingan and Tiri were contracted to Kerala Blasters at the beginning of the season.
However, their parent club asked them to take a pay cut. After the duo refused to do so, ATK Mohun Bagan grabbed the opportunity with both hands to sign them.
Tiri and Jhingan didn't let their new team down. Alongside a brave Arindam Bhattacharja, they have helped ATK Mohun Bagan keep 10 clean sheets. The no-nonsense defenders have combined to make 244 clearances, 68 blocks, 48 interceptions and 80 tackles.
Seeing tough competition from Hyderabad FC, FC Goa and NorthEast United FC in December, ATK Mohun Bagan knew they needed to pull up their socks. They wasted no time in swapping Glan Martins and Bradden Inman for Lenny Rodrigues and Marcelinho in the January transfer window.
Post their joining, ATK Mohun Bagan went on a five-game winning spree which catapulted them to the top spot at one point.
What can other ISL clubs learn from ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC's transfer activities?
ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC's only agenda in the transfer market was to win the ISL trophy. For that, they required the best Indian and foreign players. But other clubs took a slightly different approach.
Bengaluru FC has one of the best Indian contingents. However, apart from Juanan and Cleiton Silva, none of their foreign players failed to click. The situation was no different for Chennaiyin FC and Kerala Blasters.
The opposite holds true for clubs like SC East Bengal and Jamshedpur FC. Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler made a bold statement by saying that the Indian players in his squad didn't have the level to play ISL and were fit to feature only in the I-League.
FC Goa, Hyderabad FC, and NorthEast United FC scouted extensively to give chance to new Indian players. The likes of Alexander Romario Jesuraj, Chinglensana Singh, Akash Mishra, Liston Colaco and VP Suhair didn't disappoint.
However, their overall squad strength was nowhere close to that of the two teams playing the ISL final.
ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC have shown that by recruiting the best domestic and international players, half their job is done. The other half depends on their performance in the ISL final.