Bengaluru will take on Kerala Blasters at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bangalore tonight to kick off the knockout rounds of the Indian Super League 2022-23 season.
Mumbai City emerged as the ISL League Shield winners but ended the season by losing back-to-back games last month. Defending champions Hyderabad had to settle for a second-place finish, while the contest for the remaining four knockout round slots saw intense competition among eight clubs.
Only East Bengal, Jamshedpur, and NorthEast United were the only teams to be truly out of the competition entering the closing stages of the league games, leading to an enthralling finish to the season. As the playoffs begin this week, let’s take a look at the top five takeaways from the league stages of the game
#1: Mumbai and Hyderabad miles ahead of the rest
One clear trend that has emerged this season in the Indian Super League is the impact a manager’s philosophy and approach can have on the team’s fortunes in the league. Des Buckingham and Manolo Marquez made their mark clear at Mumbai and Hyderabad respectively, converting the teams into match-winning units with a long-term vision and patience.
Mumbai City did not lose a single match right till the middle of February when a resurgent Bengaluru managed to inflict a 2-1 defeat on the ISL Shield Winners.
A combination of smart transfer strategy, combined with man-management and giving numerous opportunities to players to find their form has allowed every player in the current Mumbai City squad to bring out their potential. Mumbai City’s dominance of the season is best reflected in their goal difference, as the Islanders scored a record 54 goals while conceding just 21.
Hyderabad had a relatively mixed season compared to last year, but even that was enough for the Nizams to never worry about securing a direct semi-final berth. In fact, the focus for Manolo Marquez throughout the season has been the gap to Mumbai City at the top and never at the potential threat from the bottom.
Barring two back-to-back slip-ups in the middle of the season, the Nizams were once again fluent in the field, with only Mumbai City’s attackers giving them an edge. If both teams reach the final of the Indian Super League, it will be a contest to watch for the ages.
#2: The fall of East Bengal FC
While sister club ATK Mohun Bagan has established itself as one of the premier clubs in the Indian Super League, East Bengal continues to languish at the bottom of the table.
The rivalry between the two Kolkata-based clubs was considered to be the El Clasico of Indian football for decades, with thousands of fans thronging the stadium to watch the two clubs play. But the dwindling support for East Bengal in the stadium this season is a reminder of the club’s downfall ever since it entered the Indian Super League.
Frequent changes in ownership, management, and lack of a vision are affecting East Bengal in the Indian Super League. The Red and Gold Brigade have stumbled from one defeat to another this season, winning just five games during their campaign.
While the club did show some spark against Mumbai City last month, they were quickly humbled by ATK Mohun Bagan in the Kolkata derby. Unless the club gets its act together, it could mean the end of one of Indian football’s most cherished rivalries.
#3: Odisha get lucky
Odisha’s qualification to the Indian Super League play-offs saw much drama on the field. The Kalinga Warriors needed a win or a draw in their final game against an out-of-form Jamshedpur to qualify for the knockout rounds.
But Josep Gombau’s men managed to upset all expectations by losing to the Red Miners by a 2-0 margin, leaving their fate in the hands of Bengaluru. Thankfully for the club, Sunil Chhetri’s men managed to defeat FC Goa 3-1 the next day, booking Odisha’s berth in the playoffs by the narrowest of margins.
#4: Bengaluru’s perfect 2023
Bengaluru ended 2022 with a 2-1 defeat to East Bengal, dropping down to ninth place in the league. But Simon Grayson continued to believe in his approach to the game, tweaking the team’s tactics in the midfield at the beginning of the year.
Javi Hernandez was moved to a No.8 role from a No.10 role, Rohit Kumar was added to the side, and Sivasakthi Narayanan was given ample freedom. All these changes resulted in Bengaluru winning eight games in a row – including victories against both Mumbai City and ATK Mohun Bagan.
With their newly discovered confidence, Bengaluru are now aiming to win the ISL title, carrying the most momentum into the knockouts.
Simon Grayson’s men are the only team not to have lost in their last five fixtures, and with their ability to score goals, their chances of reaching the semi-finals tonight are very high.
#5: What to look forward in the play-offs
Mumbai City and Hyderabad have directly qualified for the semifinals of the tournament, while the other four teams first have to play in two knockout games. This format is different from what was followed in the Indian Super League last season, giving more teams a shot at winning the cup.
Bengaluru will face Kerala Blasters tonight, with Bengaluru the overwhelming favourites to win the fixture. Bengaluru also have the experience of playing on the big stage before, and the home crowd support will act in their favour.
ATK Mohun Bagan will take on Odisha in Kolkata on Thursday, with the hosts having the odds in their favour. Odisha’s narrow qualification definitely won’t cheer their spirits up, but they would look forward to making the most out of the opportunity presented.
ATKMB, on the other hand, will be brimming with confidence after their back-to-back victories in the last two games of the season.
Mumbai City are still the overwhelming favourites to win the title this season despite recent slip-ups, and it remains to be seen if any club can stop their march to the trophy.
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