Six weeks in, the ISL shows no signs of letting up. The New Year offs saw another lightened load but the usual suspects -- SC East Bengal, Kerala Blasters FC, ATK Mohun Bagan, FC Goa -- hogged the limelight and as ever there are talking points aplenty.
Clash of styles at the top
The race at the top of the table continues to be fascinating. On Sunday, ATK Mohun Bagan beat NorthEast United FC 2-0, in a game of few chances at either end, one that could only have ended in an ATKMB win. The day before that, Mumbai City FC beat Kerala Blasters FC 2-0, in a game that had around about a dozen chances at either end and could have ended 6-0, 2-4, or 5-5.
Same scoreline, same three points, utterly different games.
Where Mumbai City are extravagant, confident-bordering-on-arrogant on the ball, and willing to leave wide open spaces for the sake of entertainment, ATKMB are tight, organised, and, at times, downright boring. For now, both seem to be getting the job done just fine.
It's all set up for the season's most intriguing game yet on January 11 -- Hugo Boumous vs Carl McHugh, Ahmed Jahouh vs Edu Garcia, Adam Le Fondre vs Sandesh Jhingan, Mourtada Fall vs Roy Krishna, Sergio Lobera vs Antonio Habas.
P.S. - ATK Mohun Bagan are winning it 1-0, aren't they?
Coyle's steel revolution gathers steam
A statement 1-0 win over Bengaluru FC (however poor they may have been on the day) shows Jamshedpur FC are no longer around just to make up the numbers. There are still things to address -- Stephen Eze can be a little lackadaisical at the back, Nerijus Valskis seems to miss more than he hits -- but those are relatively minor clouds on a bright horizon.
Eze is a terror at the other end, impossible to defend in the air. For all his profligacy, Valskis is on six goals in nine. Jackichand Singh and Aniket Jadhav are coming into their own, while Mobashir Rahman, Aitor Monroy, and Alex Lima make for an exciting midfield. Peter Hartley is a proper old school leader at the back. Oh, and goalkeeper TP Rehenesh is fun. Owen Coyle is getting a lot of things right with this Jamshedpur team, and they look like genuine contenders for (at least) a playoff spot.
Goa's late late show continues
Last week, it was a 95th-minute winner. This week they got the job done earlier.. in the 91st minute.
Stoppage-time goals are becoming a thing for FC Goa this season, and that should sound warning bells to their rivals. Because if they can win games not playing particularly well, what happens when they do play well?
Sir Alex Ferguson attributed his teams' knack of delivering late to their character, their never-give-in attitude -- on a smaller scale, that is exactly what Juan Ferrando's men seem to be developing. Even when struggling for cohesion, they rarely struggle for effort. And they never accept a point where there's three to be had. Of course, it helps when you have a striker as potent as Igor Angulo up top. The man's on nine goals in nine games and scored both aforementioned late winners.
A first for SC East Bengal
Finally, SC East Bengal have won a game in the ISL. Yes, it was against the only side below them on the table, and yes, they gave Odisha FC enough chances to equalise and then some, but none of that matters for now.
After seven games of miserable luck, baffling decisions, and just plain bad football, things clicked for Robbie Fowler and his men. Jacques Maghoma and Anthony Pilkington were superb moving forward, carving open Odisha's soft defence with ease. Both scored, with Maghoma's goal a peach. January signing Bright Enobakhare came on for his debut, and scored promptly.
This was exactly the kind of result, and offensive performance, Fowler needed to start salvaging what had seemed an unsalvageable situation. This week they take on FC Goa and a Bengaluru FC smarting from consecutive losses. If they can get any kind of positive result against those two, this may genuinely be the dawn of a brighter 2021.
What is that Kerala defence?
The first 11 minutes vs Mumbai City encapsulated all that is wrong with Kerala Blasters this season. In the second minute, a careless backpass was intercepted by the Mumbai press, which led to Boumous being brought down in the box. In the 11th minute, a Jahouh free kick taken from inside the Mumbai box sailed over everyone onto the feet of Boumous, who beat the keeper one-on-one. It was only Mumbai's casual, careless finishing that prevented the first-half score from being a more accurate depiction of just how poor the Blasters' defence was.
That it came after the solid clean sheet against Hyderabad makes it even more disappointing. Why was Abdul Hakku dropped from the XI, again? There were more than enough signs of life in attack to show that Kibu Vicuna does indeed know what he is doing on that side of the field, but if he doesn't address the issues at the back, it's going to get embarrassing.
Right now, it feels like the best chance for Kerala to not concede is to foul their opponents in the box, and hope Albino Gomes does his thing (three out of four penalties saved, plus a touch on the one that went through). If only they can get close enough to commit said fouls more often.
Player of The Week - TP Rehenesh
The aforementioned description of TP Rehenesh as 'fun' is not what you'd most commonly associate with a goalkeeper, and it's not going to be high on the list of attributes a coach would look for in his keeper, but this column is a huge admirer of the trait.
Rehenesh plays on the edge, and it makes for quite the spectacle. When it goes wrong, it's spectacularly bad, think the red card against Odisha. But when he gets it right, he's unbeatable. Just ask Bengaluru. A stunning double save -- diving to intercept a pass from Suresh Singh to Cleiton Silva (with the BFC players 2-on-1 against him) and immediately springing to his feet to swipe away a potential follow-up -- was the pick of a display that won Jamshedpur all three points.
If Coyle can coax consistency from a keeper whose shot-stopping skills were never in doubt, Igor Stimac could have a right proper headache come national-team-camp time.