Indian Super League: A Season in Review

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions
Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

Atletico De Kolkata, ISL Champions

This is the first time I’ve sat down to write anything about the Indian Super League after that fateful ISL Final. That final was the culmination of Atletico De Kolkata’s topsy-turvy season where they started like a house on fire but ended in an as underwhelming manner as a biryani made for the international crowd.

Their performance in the league and knockout phases, both could be seen as flawed in one way and resilient in another. The winner of the whole affair… no it’s not football as most pundits like to say but instead us football fans.

Who would’ve thought that Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and Borussia Dortmund (although their fan base may be dwindling rapidly after recent performances) in India would finally get to see good quality football in their own cities?

But, that’s exactly what’s happened. Let bitter people (some from mainstream media and some former players) denigrate the Indian Super League (ISL) as much as they want to. For me, the ISL was a huge success and will remain so unless the organisers really bungle the next instalment of the great tournament. This is my review of a tournament that I have no qualms saying was a tremendous success.

Reviewing Indian Super League, it’s Performance, And Its Format

So, how did the Indian Super League perform in its inaugural season? There were good and bad both. The good, without a doubt for me, was the way the people of our great country took to the Indian Super League like a long lost child come back after getting lost in the stereotypical Kumbh Mela.

I love the fact that a lot of the people following the Indian Super League were people who had no affinity for football before. I love it even more that people who followed more high profile leagues from Europe all their lives chose to reward their love to our own domestic league.

I especially love the fact that barring few teething troubles such as lights going out and poor parking provisions at venues the organisers did a brilliant job with an event. If you consider the fact that the initial expectations from the Indian Super League weren’t anywhere near the popularity it managed to achieve, it is an even greater achievement from the organisers.

The Great Indian Super League

The Great Indian Super League

The quality of football, itself, was comparable to the second tier leagues of the footballing nations of Europe and South America. Our champions Atletico De Kolkata may get taken apart by the bigwigs of the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Bundesliga but I have a feeling that they would give the level two teams a run for their money. Heck, our flair child FC Goa was more entertaining and effective attacking wise than many European clubs. I’m looking at the football team from the Middle Earth of Stoke.

Our Indian Super League teams even managed to draw more crowds than most leagues of the world. In fact, only the English Premier League and the Bundesliga are more watched as of now. That was only because some of our stadiums are smaller than the smallest stadiums on other continents.

I’ll give you a prediction. You give our teams bigger stadiums to fill and I promise you they’ll fill it! Watch out UK and Germany, Indian football has been resuscitated and is coming after you next!

The format is the only thing I have a bone to pick with. I like the fact that we have a combination of league and knockout because that is what is needed in a country like India. The Indian Super League is nascent in nature and needs its popularity and entertainment to be boosted. If we were to only use the league format, I think the league wouldn’t be as popular as it was. The knockout phase adds a certain spice to the whole meal for our uninitiated countrymen.

At the same time, I don’t like the fact that we have a 1st vs. 4th and 2nd vs. 3rd format. I believe we would be better off if we drew lots for who will play who. I know that the Major League Soccer uses this playoff system but even there I don’t approve of it. You might say that when we have more teams, this is something that will cease to matter but I don’t agree entirely.

What’s the point of making the leaders play the lowest qualifying team? I say, we draw lots because that will add another level of excitement as fans will start to speculate who their teams will play in the next round. Imagine not knowing who your favourite Indian Super League team will play in the knockouts. Doesn’t that send a tingle down your spine as you speculate whether you’ll meet the in-form team or the pushovers? Does to me which is why I think it’ll be good for the common football fan.

Reviewing Indian Super League Players, Indian and Foreign

Ahh, the Indian Super League players, did they perform? Did the foreign stars do justice to their legends? Did our Indian players make the step up? Could our stars match the best geriatrics legends that the world had to offer? Is the concept of ISL marquee player good for our country? Interesting questions and the answers are not black and white.

The quality of football in the Indian Super League was better than what many and I myself had expected. In some games, the quality of football was breath-taking while in others it was poor. A large percentage of the latter could be attributed to Atletico De Kolkata but they won so they justified it all with the big T.

What about the ISL marquee players from abroad? Again, some of them showed their capabilities while others fell flat on their faces. However, it wasn’t the stars we expected to do well who did well. It were the unfancied stars that did it.

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano, Golden Boot Winner

Elano lit up the league but he relied on set pieces a lot which isn’t something that requires a lot of stamina. Luis Garcia did it somewhat through his passing but couldn’t step up in terms of assists and goals. David James really did it but he was another who didn’t rely on his fitness because he wasn’t an outfield player.

The Anelkas, the Trezeguets, the Ljungbergs, the Del Pierros, and I’m sorry to add the Pires are the ones that couldn’t do it. Did I leave someone out? Well, you can add them to the last group because if they weren’t memorable then they didn’t do it.

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Best Foreign Player 11 of ISL

Apart from the ISL marquee players, there were other foreigners in the Indian Super League too. The ones that stood out for me were (in no particular order) Apoula Edel, Josemi, Fikru Lemessa, Bernard Mendy, Bruno Pelissari, Stiven Mendoza, Gustavo Dos Santos, Andre Santos, Zohib Amiri, Bruno Pinheiro, Iain Hume, Colin Falvey, Stephen Pearson, Pavel Cmovs, and Jan Stohanzl.

My best 11 from this lot is in image. In honour of the finalists, theirs are the colours I have chosen.

The best part of the Indian Super League was the Indian players. They really turned on the magic if you ask me. I’m not going to talk about the players who never made it onto the pitch as so many others have chosen to do. I’d rather be positive and talk about those that merited a spot in their teams and showed their merits in grand style.

The pick of the lot for me were Romeo Fernandes, Narayan Das, Sandesh Jhingan, and of course Arnab Mondal. Romeo is a star in the making and he didn’t only show it with his goals and assists but also with the skills that don’t get counted. He passed well, ran well, and even tackled well. Das, Jhingan, and Mondal are all defenders who were like walls for their teams.

There’s news that Mondal may even get picked by Atletico De Madrid albeit only for their B team. It’s still a step up for the 25 year old and I wish him all the best. I hope he climbs up the ladder, faces Messi, and shows how good Indian defenders are by nullifying him left, right, and centre. That’s a nice dream isn’t it?

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

Best Indian Player 11 of ISL

While these were the standout performers for me, there were others who deserve credit for standing tall too. These were (again in no particular order) Dhanachandra Singh, Balwant Singh, Debabrata Roy, Bikramjit Singh, Mandar Rao Desai, Sandip Nandy, Rehenesh TP, and Durga Boro. (If you feel I have left our some players then let me hear it in the comments section)

Now, I know that my lists lack players from FC Pune City and Northeast United FC but that’s only because those two teams didn’t have any standout performers for me. They were both well drilled teams that played as a team. Give them a star and they may even surprise us all next season.

Reviewing Indian Super League Fans

They said it best!

They said it best!

You can’t fault the Indian fans for showing heart. They truly know how to cheer even if they can’t appreciate the game. There were many instances where I heard the fans cheering for no rhyme or reason at all.

It doesn’t matter though because at the end of the day the fact that they cheered is more than enough. The understanding of the game and the resultant arguments with best buddies will come later.

Some of the stadiums truly showed the kind of fan following any sport in the country can generate. Examples of great stadiums and great fans include the champions Atletico De Kolkata, the favourites Chennaiyin FC, the team with heart Kerala Blasters FC, the down but not out Mumbai City FC, and even the outlying Northeast United FC.

Delhi Dynamos FC fans can learn a thing or two from the fans of those teams. Delhi Dynamos FC’s stadium sorely needed some good support.

Reviewing Mainstream Media

This is where I have a problem. We have a well-developed and cash rich mainstream media. It is because of this reason that I find it surprising that the big channels and newspapers couldn’t find a good football expert to write and report for them. It was a pity reading some of the reports that our media churned out. They were poorly researched, lacked insight, and were depressingly drab.

Now, I am not saying that I want something like the overzealous media of England but we could do with some passionate and hard-hitting journalists who actually know what they’re spouting. Even the Indian Super League website’s reports were poor when compared to European media. I guess they’re learning too. Hope they can buck up their part in the big scheme of things because the media is actually responsible for creation a lot of passion amongst the populace.

Follow:
Facebooktwitter

Share:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

ISL Final: Efficient Atletico De Kolkata Are the Deserved Champions

ISL Final - Kerala Blasters FC vs. Atletico De Kolkata

Ok, let’s begin with a confession. I’ve never bothered with opening and closing ceremonies and the way I’m doing I doubt I ever will. What I have a tendency never to miss though is finals. I sit here with a stiff drink and even stiffer chips on a very soft seat looking forward to watching the ISL Final.

In terms of team news, it seems that I was wrong about Kerala Blasters not having their 1st and 2nd choice keepers. David James chose to give himself what could be his last ever start in a professional football game.

Other new names in the Kerala Blasters starting line-up were Saumik Dey at left back and Nirmal Chettri at right back. Sandesh Jhingan moved into central defence.

Atletico De Kolkata had to endure a heavy blow before the game as Luis Garcia and Lester Fernandez wasn’t deemed fit enough to start the game. For those two, Arnal Llibert and Kingshuk Debnath came on.

Kerala Blasters Start More Positively

David James, Kerala Blasters FC

David James, Kerala Blasters FC

Unsurprisingly, Kerala Blasters were the more attacking of the two teams even though Atletico De Kolkata started in their 4 – 4 – 2 formation.

Both teams were set up to be attacking but it was really Kerala who looked more comfortable in the opponent’s final third.

Within the first 10 minutes, the most interesting part of the game was that David James wasn’t moving as freely as you would expect him too.

He was moving gingerly and was being very careful with his clearances. I wondered if that would be something that would end up causing problems for Kerala Blasters especially if the ISL Final was to go to penalties.

Two Great Chances – Two Great Examples of Good Defending

Victor Herrero Forcada, Atletico De Kolkata

Victor Herrero Forcada (Polga), Atletico De Kolkata

What was clicking for Kerala Blasters, though, was their attack. In the 11th minute, Victor Herrero Forcada (Pulga) created good space for himself in the 18 yard box.

He got a shot off but it was blocked off. Ishfaq Ahmed was right behind Pulga by creating a wonderful opportunity of his own from outside the box.

He tried for the near post after beating 3 Kolkata players but Apoula Edel proved a match for his shot.

Referee under the Spotlight

Nirmal Chettri, Kerala Blasters FC

Nirmal Chettri, Kerala Blasters FC

In the 25th minute, Atletico De Kolkata showed what they’re capable of. Their midfield set Mohammed Rafi free in the middle of the pitch who showed great skill to control the ball.

However, he couldn’t be the man to win the ISL Final for his team because Chettri came in and fouled him clumsily. It could’ve been a red card but the referee chose a yellow card instead.

I wasn’t entirely sure which card it should’ve been because there were other defenders in line but not ahead. So that was one where interpretation of the rules comes into play.

Atletico De Kolkata and Kerala Blasters Exchange Blows

Iain Hume, Kerala Blasters FC

Iain Hume, Kerala Blasters FC

Atletico De Kolkata’s best chance came as a twin. The ball was crossed from deep on the right flank and Rafi got to the ball too but James had positioned himself flawlessly.

This was followed by a long range shot from Jakub Podany (Pody) towards the near post which James saved too.

Iain Hume came up with a brilliant freekick in the 39th minute. His shot went up and over the wall and towards Edel’s right corner. Fortunately, Edel read the shot and managed to palm it for a corner.

After those chances, the ISL Final became scrappy with both teams giving the ball away in quick succession. That’s how everyone went into the half time break.

Exchange of Blows Continues In the Second Half

Apoula Edel, Atletico De Kolkata

Apoula Edel, Atletico De Kolkata

Atletico De Kolkata started the second half on the front foot. Their aggression seemed to have surprised Kerala Blasters because they got pegged back and made some unforced errors.

However, they recovered very quickly and very effectively. Michael Chopra was set free at an acute angle in Kolkata box and got a ferocious shot off towards the top corner.

However, Edel again stood strong and unconventionally chose to punch it away with one hand.

Kerala Blasters Attack; Atletico De Kolkata Counter

Sandesh Jhingan, Kerala Blasters FC

Sandesh Jhingan, Kerala Blasters FC

Normal service resumed after that as Kerala Blasters continued to dominate. Hume was set free to run at the keeper but I believe his age caught up with him before he could reach Edel. Once the one on one evaporated, there wasn’t much he could do.

However, Kerala Blasters continued to attack looking for that elusive goal while Atletico De Kolkata courted it in the way of counters. On one of those counters, Sandesh Jhingan almost scored another own goal.

Another counter resulted in Arnal being free from an acute angle. Still, he had James on a one on one but couldn’t even work him. His shot went high and wide and James stood there unruffled.

The Red Zone of Fatigue and Mistakes Begins

Michael Chopra, Kerala Blasters FC

Michael Chopra, Kerala Blasters FC

After that flurry of attacks, as fatigue set in, the game became slower after the 60th minute. I believe that it wasn’t just fatigue but also mental jitters of playing in the ISL Final that kept the players from playing freely. They simply became safer and safer as the clock ticked on.

The best chance for Kerala Blasters came in the 79th minute. Kerala Blasters showed some deft interplay and understanding and created a chance for Chopra just inside the box. Chopra received the ball in the centre and passed it to his left to Stephen Pearson. Pearson returned the ball to Chopra inside the box but Chopra’s shot was too tame.

Neither Chopra nor Hume looked tired in the 83rd minute though. Hume rand free on his team’s left flank and cross but his cross was deflected. The ball fell to Chopra who first fought hard and then bedazzled the defender to get his shot off.

He didn’t consider Edel in his equation, though, because Edel pulled off what could’ve been the save of the whole season. The shot was almost point blank. At the same time, Edel managed to somehow palm the ball away onto the post. The ball glanced off the post and went out for a corner.

The ISL Final Winning Goal

Mohammed Rafique, Atletico De Kolkata

Mohammed Rafique, Atletico De Kolkata

After almost 93 minutes of waiting, the ISL Final winning goal finally came from the unlikeliest of sources and the unlikeliest of teams. Mohammed Rafique was the scorer and Atletico De Kolkata were the winner.

I believe the corner was taken by Polga. The corner came from Atletico De Kolkata’s left side and the shortest players on the pitch at that time rose tall and proud to head the ball into the bottom corner on James’ right side.

James dived full stretch but even the legendary James couldn’t have done anything to save that header.

The Mecca of Indian Football Gets the First Indian Super League Trophy

Antonio Lopez Habas, ISL Final Winning Head Coach

Antonio Lopez Habas, ISL Final Winning Head Coach

The funniest thing was that the goal came right at death. There were 3 minutes added by the referee and the goal came when the 93 minutes had already gone by. Rafique just headed himself into the history books with the first goal in the ISL final.

Kerala Blasters looked unbelievably dejected. I didn’t think it would’ve mattered to them so much to win the final. One of the most disappointed players on the pitch was James. He actually went and sat at the bench for a good 15 minutes staring into space.

Colin Falvey had tears in his eyes as did Jhingan and other Kerala Blasters players. Sachin Tendulkar actually came onto the pitch to console his players. He’s a part owner of Kerala Blasters, in case you didn’t know.

The most heartening part of the game was that when the final whistle was blown, Atletico De Kolkata players celebrated for a minute or two and then went to the Kerala Blasters players. You could see them consoling their opponents in the most sporting manner I have ever seen.

Atletico De Kolkata may not play the most beautiful football in the league but they do play it in the most effective way. I may not like their intimidation and physical tactics but today they showed empathy and heart when they went to console their opponents after winning the game. It was good to see and must be appreciated.

The champions of the Indian Super League needed to be special. In the ISL Final, Atletico De Kolkata showed why they are special. I tip my hat to you good sirs. They deserve the win.

Follow:
Facebooktwitter

Share:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin

ISL Final Preview: Kerala Blasters’ Dynamism vs. Atletico De Kolkata’s Efficiency

ISL Final - Kerala Blasters FC vs. Atletico De Kolkata

You know, as much as I like a good tactical battle, when I come to the ISL final of a grand tournament, I expect some level of entertainment. Unfortunately, these two teams are not inspiring much confidence in me of getting that.

In fact, I am decidedly feeling underwhelmed about this match. However, since this is the last match of the season I’ll haul my ass to my extremely comfortable TV room and even deign to make myself a drink. Such struggles I go through for you guys.

A Nation Hopes from Kerala Blasters and Atletico De Kolkata ISL Final

ISL Final - Kerala Blasters FC vs. Atletico De Kolkata

ISL Final – Kerala Blasters FC vs. Atletico De Kolkata

Those of you who’ve been watching Chennaiyin and FC Goa must already realise that with both those teams not playing, the ISL final is going to be all about defence.

The most optimistic amongst you will be hoping that Kerala Blasters bring that same swashbuckling drive to the game that they had purring in the ISL semi final.

I fall firmly in the second category. I actually want Kerala Blasters to open the scoring so that Atletico De Kolkata are forced to come out of their shell and attack a little more. Besides, a game that isn’t completely tactical will be good for football in our nation.

Personally, I don’t care who wins in the end as long as the game is fun to watch, so before either of you Kerala Blasters and Atletico De Kolkata fans castigate me, remember that I’m a neutral in this game.

Kerala Blasters Have Slight Edge over Atletico De Kolkata

Stephen Pearson's Deciding Goal

Stephen Pearson’s Deciding Goal

In my opinion, Kerala Blasters have a slight edge over Atletico De Kolkata. My reasoning for this is simple. After the ISL semi finals, Kerala Blasters have more flexibility to their game. They can actually rely on this flexibility to help them come out on top in the ISL final.

They played the whole of the league phase defensively. They couldn’t score a goal even when their league lives depended on it. It’s partly through luck that they got through. However, as David James says, it does take a little bit of luck to win a trophy.

Just look at the years before Arsenal won last season’s FA Cup and Chelsea in the run that was blessed by God, the Son Of God, Three Holy Spirits, Ghosts of Christmas, Zeus, Pagan Gods, Doctor Manhattan, and even the Chittauri.

The best thing that Kerala Blasters did is that they turned up for the ISL semi finals in the most confidence building manner possible. They routed Chennaiyin in the first leg and came up with the knockout punch at the very last moment to get through to the ISL final.

The timing of the knockout punch is important because I think Kerala Blasters were reeling by that time. Their confidence was on the wane and they most probably wouldn’t have survived if the game had gone to penalty shootouts.

Atletico De Kolkata Govern Themselves with a Different Philosophy

Total Football from Ajax in 1973

Total Football from Ajax in 1973

In contrast, Atletico De Kolkata defended for the majority of the 180 minutes of the ISL semi finals. The only time they looked to be peeping out of their hardened shells was in the first half of the second leg. But, they must’ve not liked what they saw because they jumped right back into their shell in the second half of the second leg.

Who can blame them? They fell back on the strategy that allowed them to clear the league phase. After they fell back on it, they actually got through to the ISL final with the same damn strategy.

Heck, that strategy has worked so often that even I am on the verge of believing in its miraculous wonders. The only reason I’m holding back is my allegiance to Total Football – the kind that Ajax made popular in late 1960s and early 1970s. Once you’ve seen total football, you never go back.

Antonio Lopez Habas, Atletico De Kolkata

Antonio Lopez Habas, Atletico De Kolkata

However, Habas the Henchman obviously hasn’t seen that style of football because he has a very minimalistic strategy. He doesn’t want his team to take any risks. I think he hates risk of any type.

He must be the type of person who always keeps a buffer of cash for lean times, ensures that his kids have the fear of god in them, doesn’t eat outside food much, avoids going out at night, never drives after drinking, and erm…never drinks. I wonder how he enjoys life.

Whatever you may feel about his strategy, it has given Atletico De Kolkata results and it’s all about results in the end. If they win, they will be remembered for decades while the great football styles of Chennaiyin and FC Goa will be forgotten by the next generation. Such is football.

Kerala Blasters Have To Cope With Suspensions

Jamie McAllister, Kerala Blasters FC

Jamie McAllister, Kerala Blasters FC

From what the head coaches David James and Habas the Henchman have been saying and what I personally understand of the mentalities of the two teams, I can surmise that Kerala Blasters may set up to attack while Atletico De Kolkata may continue with their own drab but result oriented strategy.

David James clearly promised an exciting game in his pre-game press conference. It’s also important to note that James has managerial aspirations in more high profile leagues in Europe.

I think he wants to impress some big shot Chairmen with his performance in the Indian Super League. He needs to produce in the ISL final for that as well. I believe mentioning winning a trophy in your first season as a manager in your CV is something that will improve his chances of landing a big job. This is another reason why I think he’ll try to go for the win.

The world’s media wants to know about it, so to think that’s it’s easy or that there is no pressure is completely wrong. It’s been three months, it’s been serious from day one, I’m a competitor and I have a team of competitors and we want to win the cup… I think we’re set for a wonderful encounter tomorrow; it’s going to be a wonderful and exciting game.

Kerala Blasters will have some selection headaches. Their biggest problem will be the keeper position. They may have to play the relatively inexperienced Luis Barreto, if neither James nor Sandip Nandy is deemed fit.

Colin Falvey’s fitness will be in question and I think Cedric Hengbart may be injured. They’ll also be without Jamie McAllister and Gurwinder Singh both of whom are suspended. James may choose to use any of Ishfaq Ahmed, Nirmal Chettri, and Raphael Romey in their places. Expect Pulga, Stephen Pearson, and Iain Hume to also continue.

Atletico De Kolkata Will Be Without Fikru

Fikru Lemessa, Atletico De Kolkata

Fikru Lemessa, Atletico De Kolkata

Habas the Henchman will start with his normal strategy simply because it has done wonders for him so far. In a total of 16 games, Atletico De Kolkata have only lost 3.

That, by the way, is the lowest in ISL. Chennaiyin had only lost 3 too till they lost the first leg of their ISL semi final.

Another reason why I think that Atletico De Kolkata will carry on with their strategy of stifling out their opponent’s attacks is because they are still without Fikru Lemessa. He has been their target man and defensive striker, if you must.

Fikru will not take part in the final. His injury does not permit that… But we have other players in our squad who are hungry to prove themselves and will grab this opportunity with both hands.

Without him, they have a sore hole in their attack. They deploy Mohammed Rafi in front but he acts more like a false nine than a proper forward. He still does the job of a defensive forward though.

He is accompanied by Luis Garcia who, let’s face it, doesn’t have the pace or stamina of his younger years. What he does have is vision and that X factor. I expect him to show some magic in the ISL final on account of it being such a big day.

So, this makes Atletico De Kolkata the more efficient team in the ISL final while Kerala Blasters are the more dynamic of the two.

Follow:
Facebooktwitter

Share:
Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin