A chaotic last day of the league-stage saw Mumbai City usurp ATK Mohun Bagan to top the Indian Super League (ISL) table. It earned the ‘Islanders’ the coveted AFC Champions League spot.
Earlier that same day, a goalless draw between Hyderabad FC and FC Goa – in which both teams were reduced to 10 men – meant that the latter secured the final playoff spot.
FC Goa will take on league-stage winners Mumbai FC in the semi-final, while Kolkata-side will play third placed NorthEast United.
Quick turnaround for City Football Group
A single transfer window completely changed the fortunes of Mumbai City, who before this season had made just a few playoff appearances without much effect. When the City Football Group took over the Mumbai-franchise, they hired the services of former FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera to take command of the squad. Lobera brought with him the core players that helped the Goan team qualify for the AFC Champions League last year – along with gifted strikers Adam Le Fondre and Bartholomew Ogbeche.
Mumbai City topped the table for most of the duration of the group stage, but was briefly replaced at the top by ATK Mohun Bagan. As both clubs tussled for the Champions League spot, it came down to their last match of the season which incidentally was against each other. Mumbai City, the team to beat through most of the season, won that contest 2-0.
Time to predict the score of #FCGMCFC 🎩
— Indian Super League (@IndSuperLeague) March 4, 2021
Point to prove for Goa
Facing Mumbai City for a spot in the ISL final will be a Goan team that lost most of its core from last year. It seemed unlikely for FC Goa to rebuild a squad so quickly, let alone make the playoffs, but under Juan Ferrando, not only has the club arrested all doubts about a decline, but also put on a show in their two high-intensity league games against Mumbai.
Narrowly missing out on a Champions League spot after clawing hard to get back to the top of the table, ATK now face NorthEast United. Winning the playoffs would mean a spot in the AFC Cup, Asia’s second tier competition.
As this season went by, one thing was clear: Win, lose or draw – all of ATK’s results hinged on Roy Krishna. The striker has scored 14 goals and made four assists in 20 games – making him the league’s leading goal-scorer and has more assists than any other teammate.
Despite the depth of talent in the squad, Krishna has been the only player constantly stepping up and has single-handedly dragged his team into the playoffs.
Khalid Jamil scripted one of the greatest underdog tales in Indian football when he oversaw Aizawl FC winning the I-League in 2017, a mere two years after they achieved promotion from the then second division.
Now Jamil has the chance to script history yet again. If NorthEast United can win the title, Jamil will become the first Indian manager to lift the ISL trophy. And despite fielding the least-known line-up among all four teams in the playoff, NEUFC’s chances are a lot brighter than many would think.
Having finished third in the league, NorthEast lost just one game in the six against the other three playoff teams during the group stage – a 2-0 defeat to ATK. They also beat Mumbai City in both the matches they played each other.