Four months and 115 matches after the first ball was kicked at the GMC stadium in Bambolim, ISL 2020-21 is done. And what a season it has been. It was a tough, non-stop season, games blurring into one giant mass of football by the end of it... but it was brilliant.
The football was finer than we have seen in the recent past. The drama was even better. The League Shield was not decided until the very last minutes of the league stage. The Cup was won with almost the last kick of the tournament.
Mumbai City and the new-old entity of ATK Mohun Bagan pulled away from everyone -- their financial, technical, tactical superiority coming to the fore. That City won the League Shield by virtue of head-to-head (beating Bagan both times in the league) and the Cup by a single-goal margin goes to show that they just held their bottle better. And for that, they are deserved Champions of India.
Sergio Lobera, sacked so ignominiously just before FC Goa lifted their League Shield last season, returned with a vengeance. We saw Lobera-ball, we saw a very-watered, pragmatic version of it later on, and they combined to give him the two trophies. Antonio Habas, meanwhile, did what Antonio Habas always does-- fight it out till the very end. For once, though, he didn't come out on top.
Below them, NorthEast United and Khalid Jamil played out one of the best stories in the short history of the ISL, and remarkably so did Hyderabad FC. Csaba Lazlo's Chennaiyin did everything but actually put the ball in the back of the net. Juan Ferrando did well with a much changed, very injury-prone FC Goa side.
Carles Cuadrat did not with a remarkably unchanged Bengaluru FC and paid the price -- he was the first of four managers to be sacked. Joining him on the plane out of Goa were NorthEast United's Gerard Nus (rather unfortunate, all things considered), Kerala Blasters' Kibu Vicuna (they really were horrendous) and Odisha FC's Stuart Baxter (they were even worse, but the sacking was not football related. We'll come to that). SC East Bengal made a big splash when they brought on board Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler, but that was about all the noise they made for the next four months. On the pitch, anyway. Off it, Fowler made sure that he, and the club, remained in the headlines.
The bio-bubbles (18 across 14 hotels) were impeccably maintained and not a rumour of an incident arose (70,000 tests were conducted). In the middle of the worst pandemic of our times, the Federation and the league pulled off something quite spectacular. They get a lot of brickbats, and the vast majority of the time it's well earned, but for this they deserve great praise.
298 goals were scored at a rate of 2.59 per match. That's a lot of goals, and a lot of them were belters. Rafael Crivellaro scored an Olimpico - straight from a corner. Lalengmawia smashed in an on-the-run bolt off the crossbar from about 25 yards out. Glan Martins curl-smashed another into the top corner from even further out. Liston Colaco hoodwinked three defenders in a dance-and-curler routine that was just awesome. Vignesh Dakshinamurthy, rampaging left back, capped off the passing-sequence of the season when smashing one into the top corner from inside the box -- that was peak Lobera-ball.
But the goal of the season has to go to Bright Enobakhare. The way he glides past the Goan defenders, sitting them down one-by-one, the way he keeps the ball tied to his laces as he races through from just beyond the halfway line, the way four defenders and a goalkeeper lay prone at various stages of the run, it was... awesome.
You have your pick of Ahmed Jahouh free-kicks/long balls. You have that gorgeous Hugo Boumous backheel for Bart Ogbeche's goal against Bagan. You have Roy Krishna's slide rule ball to David Williams in the semi.
But the pick of the lot is Liston Colaco's exorcism of Scott Neville en-route delivering a pin-point ball for Aridane Santana's winner in a 3-2 come from behind win. An assist that is not as much about the pass as all that preceded it.
We have most of the contenders listed out in our team of the season piece here, but there really can be only one winner. Roy Krishna -- one man wrecking crew, finisher extraordinaire, the most terrifying attacking force in the country.
In a season that has tested managerial skills like none before, there were quite a few contenders. Manolo Marquez, who came in late and coached excellence out of a bunch of unproven young Indian kids at Hyderabad. Khalid Jamil with that stunning run toward the end that has forced the league to acknowledge that Indian managers need not, in fact, remain assistants forever. Juan Ferrando, whose tactical acumen kept Goa afloat. Antonio Habas, who Antonio Habas-ed his way to being in contention till the final seconds of the tournament.
But it surely has to be the man who won everything in sight, and finally got the silverware to match all that his teams have done on the pitch over the past four years in India. Sergio Lobera, champion twice over, manager of the season.
Mumbai City 3 - 3 FC Goa just about trumps them all. It had everything - the underlying tension of Lobera's return (and the four players he took with him, the spine of that old Goa side), goals at regular intervals (including what everyone thought was a winner in the 90th minute being cancelled out by a 96th minute equaliser), poor refereeing decisions, and a sending off after the game ended. It was fractious yet free-flowing, tense yet bizarrely open -- a right ol' ding-dong between two proper footballing units.
Most boring match
ATK Mohun Bagan 1 - 0 Bengaluru FC. David Wiliams scored in the 33rd minute with what felt like the only attack of the match. Bagan were happy to sit on the lead, Bengaluru were unable to do anything about it. The best thing you could say about it was that it was behind closed doors -- falling asleep in front of the TV is vastly preferable to it happening in the stands.
There are quite a lot of moments you could pick from the on-field action -- including that hilarious one where Bright Enobakhare decided to stand on the ball, in the middle of East Bengal's tough match vs. Bengaluru FC, just for the heck of it -- but this one happens just off it.
Sunil Chhetri's just scored the goal that seals Bengaluru's win against Mumbai City -- after a terrible season, where his team have not played well, he has not seen the ball much in any area of import, where they've been stuck in a bubble where escaping the aftertaste of defeat is impossible -- and he vaults the advertising boards to clasp Kunaal Majgoankar (BFC media head and Chhetri's close friend) in a tight, heartwarming embrace. It was just so... human.
Oh, the choices. Every single game seemed to have atleast one of the benches going off on the referees. The refereeing, which for the most part was not very good. Any one of Robbie Fowler's post-match interviews (but especially the one where he launched into ISL pundit and former coach Pradhyum Reddy). Edu Bedia attempting to bite Deepak Tangri (he was found not guilty of the transgression, hence the 'attempting to', because he clearly tried).
But the moment Stuart Baxter uttered those words on national television, the worst moment of the season (perhaps in ISL history) was sealed. After being contentiously denied a last-minute penalty against Jamshedpur FC, he said -- "one of my players would have to rape or get raped in the box to get a penalty."
P.S. Odisha FC acted immediately, Baxter was sacked the next day. The coach would later go on to issue a statement saying 'this is not who I am.'
Silliest sending off
There's incompetent tackles, there's out-of-control rage, and quite a bit further up the silly scale there's talking your way into a red, especially with a semifinal match up next. And that's just what Alberto Noguera did -- and he wasn't even on the pitch, having been substituted after a decent performance in the all-important final day league clash vs. Hyderabad FC, when he launched into his red-card inducing tirade. Sigh.
Disappointment of the season
Kerala Blasters and everything that came with them. Kibu Vicuna came in off the high of winning the I-League with Mohun Bagan, but we saw only glimpses of quality play all season. The big signings flopped, and that defence... Blasters fans will be haunted by the sentence 'Costa and Kone are both starting' for a long time.
Whinge of the season
The refereeing leaves a lot to be desired, and so does the conduct of the players and coaching staff towards the officials. But for once that is not our biggest whinge of the season. That's reserved for Igor Stimac. It's understandable if you can't cover every match of the season live during a normal year -- India is vast and travel times are impossible. Here, though, was the perfect opportunity -- three stadiums, one tiny state, and all the players you could possibly wish to call up to the national team right there in front of you. So just why was the head coach of the Indian national team not in Goa?