Kerala Blasters FC. ATK Mohun Bagan. Hyderabad FC. Jamshedpur FC. Four teams, four distinct styles of play, four compelling narratives. The playoffs lineup for ISL 2021-22 is a belter, and we take a quick look at the teams that will compete for this season's trophy:
Note - they appear below in order of who sealed their qualification first.
Style of play: A possession based 4-2-3-1, allowing freedom for fullbacks (esp. LB Akash Mishra) and emphasising funneling the play toward the main man up top - Bart Ogbeche.
Midterm grade: A. Well, they lived up to that, didn't they? Consistent from Manolo Marquez's men.
League finish last season: Fifth. Missed out on a playoff spot in a last game shoot-out with FC Goa after a series of draws held them back. Stuck with their (brilliant) manager, and took the step up.
Key player: 17 games, 17 goals this season - Ogbeche is an all time great of this league.
Best win: Mumbai City 1 - 3 Hyderabad. Second game in, a resounding spanking of the (double) defending champions set the tone for the rest of the season.
Most surprising loss: In retrospect, the opening game loss to Chennaiyin (0-1).
Biggest worry ahead of playoffs: Will the squad recover from the late COVID-19 outbreak that cost them dearly in the chase for the league shield? They need Ogbeche to be fully fit come the semis.
Style of play: A 4-2-3-1 that emphasises direct play - either through long balls down the channels or direct dribbling.
Midterm grade: A. They looked promising in the first half of the season, and improved in the second. Superb from Owen Coyle. They're one game away from taking home the shield.
League finish last season: Sixth. A mediocre middle-third of the season put paid to their playoff hopes. Much like Hyderabad, though, stuck with their (brilliant) manager and are reaping the rewards.
Key player: The golazos. The dribbles. The ability to get bums off seats. Greg Stewart really is the ideal Coyle #10.
Best win: JFC 3 - 2 NorthEast United. The match had everything, including a 91st minute equaliser (Deshorn Brown) and a 93rd minute winner (Ishan Pandita). Showcased the team's most entertaining qualities, and their unwillingness to accept anything short of 3 points every time.
Most surprising loss: Bengaluru FC 3-1 Jamshedpur. They took the lead in the first minute, but then came a second half collapse. Had won 3/3 games before that, and went on to win 6/6 after. That's what you call a blip.
Biggest worry ahead of playoffs: Slight injury worry for captain and bedrock of the defence, Peter Hartley.
Style of play: A 4-3-3 that has the inverted wingers, Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh, running the offense.
Midterm grade: C-. After a promising start, Antonio Habas' side got derailed and were looking well out of the race for the playoffs. In came Juan Ferrando to right the ship, and boy did he do that.
League finish last season: Second. Lost out on the league shield on head-to-head after finishing level on points with Mumbai. Could still improve upon this finish, but that would take a performance for the ages on Monday.
Key player: The golazos. The dribbles. The ability to get bums off seats. Liston Colaco is India's best player, and Bagan's most potent weapon.
Best win: The 2-1 victory over Hyderabad. It was a result that backed up their best performance of the season - Liston and Manvir ran riot, and they showed steel to keep the lead under late Hyderabad pressure.
Biggest worry ahead of playoffs: Nothing much. Appear to be peaking at the right time.
Style of play: A 4-2-2-2 counter-pressing machine that uses two wide 10s and creates chances as much due to their skill as the tempo they set.
Midterm grade: A+. Ivan Vukomanovic and co. lived up to that rating and then some, eh?
League finish last season: Tenth. TENTH. The improvement - the revamp - is quite extraordinary. Not many saw this coming.
Key player: Adrian Luna. Scores fantastic goals, creates bucket loads and works harder than anyone else in the division. Vukomanovic's philosophy distilled into one man.
Best win: Take your pick between Mumbai City 0 - 3 KBFC and KBFC 3 -1 Mumbai City. Two empathic wins against their direct playoff rivals - the first laid down a marker, the second ensured they went into the final game with that all critical H2H advantage.
Most surprising loss: The 0-1 defeat to Bengaluru FC. (Were thoroughly outplayed (xG of 0.92-1.68) as they suffered a rare, collective, off day.
Biggest worry ahead of playoffs: Vukomanovic's first and second choice left-backs are injured, but his biggest priority will be maintaining the team's collective intensity.