The festive week's Indian Super League (ISL) action saw Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC retain the top two spots, while Kerala Blasters moved up to third.
We muse on the latest round of fixtures:
A Christmas Miracle... NorthEast United win
It has taken two months and a half, it has taken 11 games, but on Christmas eve, it finally arrived. NorthEast United finally have points on the board in ISL 2022-23.
Vincenzo Alberto Annese has had a tough start to life in the ISL, after his predecessor Marco Balbul was relieved of his duties post NorthEast's eighth successive loss to begin this season.
On Saturday against ATK Mohun Bagan, Annese was facing a foe that he had once gotten the better of, in Juan Ferrando. Making it 2-0 over Ferrando was going to be a massive ask, even compared to when he led Gokulam Kerala to a 4-2 win over ATKMB in the AFC Cup earlier this year.
Compared to that game, where Annese got his Gokulam side playing on the front-foot, NorthEast were designed to absorb pressure and hit on the counter-attack. Wilmar Jordan played his role as a target-man to perfection, and that enabled others like Emil Benny to come into the game. It was hardly a comfortable evening for NorthEast, as they conceded 15 shots, for an xGC of 2.08, but unlike previous outings, they posed a significant threat of their own through their counter-attacking.
It's been an awfully difficult season for the club and their fans, but they will hope that they have turned a corner with those elusive first points of the season.
No home comforts for Bengaluru FC
Last week, we asked whether Bengaluru FC were actually good or made to look good by Jamshedpur FC. This week, it feels like there's a definitive answer to that question, as Simon Grayson's side were distinctly second-best to a vibrant Hyderabad FC. Bart Ogbeche continued to torment Bengaluru, as he added two more goals to his collection against the Blues.
Bengaluru had more than double the possession that Hyderabad managed, which in itself has been a rarity under Grayson, but when they had the ball, the hosts barely threatened. For a team that is so used to winning at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium, it just didn't feel right. In past seasons at the Kanteerava, Bengaluru have been an initiative-grabbing, wonderfully-watchable, front-foot team. This season has been a pale shadow of that. They have been timid - almost scared - and have just not created enough chances or got into enough goal-scoring positions.
Bengaluru have 6 points from 5 home games this season. For context, in three ISL seasons, Bengaluru picked up 60 points in 27 league stage matches at the Kanteerava, while also winning three semifinal home legs in those seasons.
How do you stop Mumbai City FC?
Sometimes they don't take their foot off the pedal from the first minute, sometimes they play in first gear and still comfortably coast to big wins, sometimes they produce comebacks with some of the best football you'll see in this league. Nine games lie between Mumbai City FC and invincibility. On the evidence of what we've seen so far, it would take a brave man to bet against them.
This weekend, against Chennaiyin FC, they trailed to Petar Sliskovic's goal in the first-half, but as is the Mumbai City way under Des Buckingham, there was no panic. They came back into the game through a Lallianzuala Chhangte watch-me-just-belt-this-with-my-weaker-foot screamer from the edge of the box. Then their winner, just poetry in motion...
A long ball from Vignesh Dakshinamurthy down the line for Bipin Singh to chase, his low cross for Jorge Pereyra Diaz, his back-heel flick, and then Greg Stewart's precise low finish. From start to finish, an unstoppable move - a microcosm of Mumbai's season. They're playing football from another league, and are on their way to taking the league shield for a second time.
Jamshedpur show signs of life
It is a case of too little, too late for the defending league shield winners, but at least Jamshedpur FC have finally decided to show up at ISL 2022-23. Ever since the first ten minutes of their opening game against Odisha FC (when they went 2-0 up only to eventually lose 3-2), Aidy Boothroyd's side have been stuck in a rut of insipid, uninspiring football that has produced awful results.
However, against FC Goa last week, they began to take the game to the opposition, and as suggested in ESPN's mid-season review, they flung crosses in for their big boys to attack. Football is sometimes a bit simple, Aidy.
Jamshedpur had all the game's big chances and really should've wrapped the game up with the opportunities that were presented to Ishan Pandita and Daniel Chima Chukwu, but they were restricted to just a point by Iker Guarrotxena's late equaliser, which sneaked past Vishal Yadav at his near-post.
Still, with just 5 points from 11 games this season, one can be fairly certain that Jamshedpur are not progressing to the playoffs. But just like NorthEast United, it's refreshing to see them finally show up and play some noteworthy football. Better than the 0/10 watchability of the first ten games, surely.
Blasters reveal another string in their bow
Ivan Vukomanovic's ability to pull rabbits out of his hat has been tested to the hilt this season. On Boxing Day in Kochi, he had to conjure another way for his Kerala Blasters side to win an ISL game.
The usual high-intensity football hadn't worked in the first-half, where the hosts were second-best to a well-drilled Odisha FC side. But apart from a Raynier Fernandes effort that smashed the upright in the early exchanges, there wasn't much that had Prabhsukhan Gill particularly worried.
In the second-half, Vukomanovic flicked a switch in his side that ensured Odisha faced wave after wave of attacks coming at them. There were chances that fell to Adrian Luna and Sahal Abdul Samad in their second half, but it was an unheralded star who stepped up for the Blasters on the night, as Sandeep Singh's late goal lifted them up to third in the standings.
It's not often that the ISL has seen the Blasters win despite not being at their best. This season, Vukomanovic's side are displaying that trait of champions. Can they finally be champions?