Goals, refereeing controversies, dramatic comebacks, the most entertaining goalless draw of the season, and a surprise result or two... this week in the ISL was fun.
Interim Head coach Khalid Jamil
Three matches managed, three matches won.
Khalid Jamil followed up his impressive debut victory over Jamshedpur last week by adding the scalps of the top two teams in the league -- ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City -- in the space of four days this week. (Quirky aside, NorthEast United won all three games 2-1).
Jamil's NorthEast looked comfortable in all three matches -- whether on the ball or off it -- and were full value for the wins. They have approached each game with ambition, discipline and showed tactical adaptability to exploit specific weaknesses. Defensively, against ATKMB, they stifled service to Roy Krishna and against City, did not allow Hugo Boumous and Ahmed Jahouh time on the ball. Offensively, they directed play through the channels in between the rigid ATKMB defence and used the flanks to great effect against the more free-form City.
Bengaluru outcast Deshorn Brown's rebirth as a goalscorer who's not afraid of actually scoring goals, Federico Gallego's return to full fitness, Apuia and Khassa Camara rediscovering their early-season form have all contributed to these impressive results. Jamil deserves credit for that.
Now, surely, the 'interim' tag ought to be removed?
Mumbai City blip a concern?
City's five-point gap at the top (at the beginning of the week) has been cut down to three. While that will not worry Sergio Lobera too much, the nature of this week's performances will. Against Chennaiyin, City scored early on and then simply eased off, inviting pressure and along with it trouble. It being Chennaiyin, the damage was limited to a 1-1 draw, but the strategy and gameplay was rather inexplicable. Against NorthEast United, they simply couldn't handle an opponent who got up in their faces, pressed high, and ran at their full backs. By the time they regained composure and strung a few passes together, it was too late. Brown's finishing meant that was the end of their league record 12-game unbeaten run.
Considering the start they have had, this week was disappointing. How they handle this -- will it shake them out of their complacency? Will it lead to a downward spiral? -- could well determine where the league stage shield goes this season.
So close, yet so far the Blasters
Oh, Kerala Blasters. What could have been!
Their first match of the week saw a ridiculously dominant goalless display -- they took 18 shots at the Jamshedpur goal, smashed the crossbar three times -- while their second saw one of the most dominant first half displays from any team this season which was frittered away at the end against ATK Mohun Bagan.
They dominated the team coached by last year's finalist for the full 90 in one; they dominated the defending champion for the first 60 in the other. For large phases of those matches, they played really well -- with Sahal Abdul Samad, Rahul KP, Gary Hooper and Jordan Murray forming a quartet of aesthetically pleasing quality. All they have to show for it, though, is one point.
If the first match was an ode to glorious wastefulness, the second was one to refereeing controversy and that familiar old foe, defensive incompetence.
It's the kind of result vs. performance output that could break the will of the strongest team. Kibu Vicuna was fired up post-match on Sunday, and his challenge will be to translate that anger and emotion into motivation and positive energy for the coming week. Otherwise, the now traditional end-of-season implosion awaits the Blasters.
Also... Oh, Chennaiyin
There's really little new to add about their abysmal finishing, so we'll simply leave you with the bare stats from Chennaiyin's two games this week
10 shots on goal, 3 on target, 1 goal (penalty) vs. Mumbai City (drew 1-1). 12 shots on goal, 1 on target, 0 goals vs. Hyderabad FC (lost 2-2).
Tough ones, easy ones, open goals, one-on-ones, give Chennaiyin FC a chance, they will find a way to miss it.
Could this be the spark ATK Mohun Bagan needed?
This could well have been the week that ended their challenge for the top spot. Having been brushed aside by NorthEast United, they were being bullied around the park by Kerala Blasters, when new signing Marcelinho stole one back with a lovely bit of pure footballing quality. That goal, and the comeback it sparked, may well turn out to be the most crucial moment in this hard-to-predict season's narrative arc.
That last half hour against the Blasters was Antonio Habas reminding himself, and his team, that there was indeed a gear beyond second, and that when they hit third-fourth-fifth, they're often impossible to stop. They had their share of luck falling their way, but this is what champion teams do -- seize their moments, make the most of any good fortune, and fight back when the chips are down. If they can replicate this level of aggressive intent -- especially under less duress than they were under against the Blasters -- that top spot isn't decided yet. Not by a long shot.
Player of the week - Apuia
Lalengmawia 'Apuia' Ralte is a slight 20-year-old kid who is barely into his fourth year as a professional footballer. This week in the ISL he dominated the two best teams in the land.
Playing alongside Camara and just behind Gallego, Apuia ran the show against ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City -- pulling strings in attack, oscillating between pressing and shutting down passing lanes, and generally reading the game like he'd written it.
After utterly bossing the masters of the ISL midfield, Mumbai City, Khalid Jamil was quick to lavish praise on his young general. "He's one of the best midfielders in India," said Jamil. "I never tell him what to do, he always plays with a lot of energy and the same rhythm. I've never seen a player like him". Even allowing for the natural joy of a victorious coach, those are big words from a normally reticent man.
Early on in the season, he had been named captain by Gerard Nus -- the youngest to skipper a side in the short history of the league -- and he continues to improve game-on-game. This week saw the best of him yet.