Just a week to go before the league stage ends, and as is the norm in the Indian Super League this season, it's all up for grabs. Hyderabad remain the only side who've cemented their semifinal spot, with four teams below them still in the running. Here's what we learned from an eventful week:
Is Liston Colaco the best Indian footballer at the moment?
There was a moment in ATK Mohun Bagan's controlled 2-0 win over Bengaluru FC that crystallized the future of Indian football. Sunil Chhetri, tracking back, was left for dead with dismissive ease by Liston Colaco and had no option but to resort to a desperate tug back on the ATKMB forward's shoulder. Liston stopped, barely perturbed, and walked away, with Chhetri catching his breath as his legs simply couldn't carry out what his heart & mind wanted him to. Not a passing of the baton as such, but simply the sport acknowledging who the better player is right now.
While Colaco has scored plenty a golazo this season, there was something truly special as his free-kick deceived Lara Sharma in the BFC goal and sailed into the net - something a certain 37-year-old Portuguese star in Manchester only wishes he could do once more. It also threw up an intriguing question - is there another Indian footballer who could do the same? Heck, is there another Indian footballer who is better?
We're not even 12 months out from when Colaco was being branded selfish and 'raw' in a Hyderabad shirt last season. Yet for ATK Mohun Bagan, he seems ever ready to make, and receive killer passes, adding a lethality (8 goals from 6.8xG so far vs 2 goals from 2.3xG last season) to his game. The next best Indian goalscorer in the ISL is his teammate, Manvir Singh who misses his fair share of chances (6 goals from 6.9 xG).
Credit is due to Juan Ferrando, who in addition to sharpening Liston's attacking skills, has also overseen an improvement in the manner of his press. The diamond in the rough appears ever more polished with each passing game - laid bare by the fact that Roy Krishna - the Roy Krishna - who's carried ATKMB solo for the past couple of seasons - has been barely missed.
The best part? Liston is 23 years old. Insert we-will-watch-your-career-with-great-interest meme here.
Bengaluru FC's post-mortem might require some patience
What a difference 11 weeks make... Bengaluru FC are a club with a short, but very successful history, and it's only natural that their owner will look at two consecutive seasons of not making the ISL playoffs as failure
Not good enough by @bengalurufc seriously disappointing - lots to ponder upon and lots to change
- Parth Jindal (@ParthJindal11) February 27, 2022
There is an important distinction, however. While BFC looked a team without ideas and identity at the end of last season, there is something germinating under Marco Pezzaiuoli.
The former champions finished last season with 22 points from 20 games, 9 points adrift of the playoff spots, with a negative goal difference to boot. Six games into the season, BFC had lost four, drawn and won one - it certainly seemed as if we were set for a repeat, maybe worse. However, Pezzaiuoli has overseen a run of 13 games with only three losses (including a nine-game unbeaten streak) since.
BFC's recruitment has been a bit scatterbrained - how they planned to shoehorn Sunil Chhetri, Prince Ibarra, Cleiton Silva and Udanta Singh into the same lineup remains a mystery, all while missing their glaringly obvious need for a creative midfielder. Yet, Pezzaiuoli has managed to bring a semblance of an identity to Bengaluru FC and parting with him would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. BFC have the third best xG conceded and the fourth best xG in the league - things will revert to the mean, given time.
It might be wise for Mr. Jindal to look at what Hyderabad did after missing out on the playoffs last season, and where they are now.
Playoff race comes down to the wire
Any one of Jamshedpur FC, ATK Mohun Bagan, Kerala Blasters and Mumbai City FC will miss out on the playoffs this season. It will be a painful one for the team that eventually loses out, with all four enjoying seasons that could be described as successful. Jamshedpur and ATKMB will in all likelihood qualify, needing only a point, which means it could all potentially come down to Kerala Blasters vs Mumbai City on March 2nd.
In terms of blockbuster fixtures, this is an intriguing one - the Blasters were excellent against Chennaiyin but blunt against Hyderabad, while Mumbai were perhaps a bit fortunate to defeat FC Goa by a 2-0 margin (xG 0.97 - 1.48 in Goa's favour). Indeed, the last time these two teams met, Kerala walked away with a 3-0 win, sparking off Mumbai's downturn in form - they went seven without a win.
Wouldn't it be just like the ISL then, for Kerala to finish the job or for Mumbai to exact their revenge? A wonderful narrative, no matter the result.
Khalid Jamil's allegations raise uncomfortable questions
Khalid Jamil had plenty to say in a revealing interview with The Telegraph, alleging that he hadn't been calling the shots this season, with NEUFC's technical director, Ohad Efrat, taking over most of the duties of the head coach around 5-6 games into the season. Alarmingly, Jamil hasn't been privy to 'team composition and strategies' with him also alleging that foreign coaches have a less-than-stellar opinion of Indian coaches' knowledge of the game - something that is apparently a league-wide problem.
Whether this is an act of self-preservation or simply the truth is up for discussion, but a cursory glance at NEUFC's numbers does bring up some questions. Any football fan familiar with a Khalid Jamil side, be they good or bad, knows they're generally hard to score against. Indeed, in the 11 games he managed last season in NEUFC's run to the playoffs, his side conceded 13 in 11 (which goes down to 8 in 9 when taking out two high-scoring encounters).
This season? NorthEast United have let in a staggering 43 goals in 20 games, just one shy of the worst ever defensive record in the ISL's history (Odisha let in 44 last season). Draw from that what you will - either way it's not a good look for anyone involved with the club.
Hyderabad and Jamshedpur aren't wilting under pressure
On paper, Hyderabad FC faced a tricky fixture against Kerala Blasters, but the eventual 2-1 scoreline belied the ease with which they earned the result. Granted, Jorge Pereyra Diaz' absence ensured the league leaders' backline was left relatively untroubled, but even still, Manolo Marquez' side exerted a control that was befitting of - dare we say it - champions. Hyderabad displayed their strength in depth as well - Aniket Jadhav, Nikhil Poojari, Javi Siverio and Khassa Camara were all on the bench. At the end of 90 minutes, they were celebrating a spot in the semifinals. Given the resources of the teams they're up against, this is an incredible achievement, with the entirety of the club's setup deserving credit.
Like Hyderabad, Jamshedpur are also new to being favourites going into a game, but Owen Coyle's men aren't stopping anytime soon. They raced to a comfortable 2-0 lead against NorthEast, but a two-minute spell in the second half where they conceded twice had all the makings of things going pear-shaped. Yet, Jamshedpur remained calm and kept probing, eventually earning the winner through Jordan Murray.
Their reward? The league shield is in their hands - win all three of their remaining games and they could pull off a triumph that very few, if any, predicted at the start of the season. And isn't that exactly what ISL 2021-22 has been about?