ISL Musings: Mumbai's champion-like grit; Marquez magic running out?

Mumbai City FC are undefeated this ISL season and top the standings with 36 points from 14 games. They're also the first team to qualify for the playoffs. Sandeep Shetty / Focus Sports / ISL

Matchweek 15 of the Indian Super League (ISL) saw Mumbai City FC extend their lead at the top of the standings after a win over ATK Mohun Bagan, coupled with second-placed Hyderabad FC dropping points at home to Chennaiyin FC. The race for the playoff spots spiced up as FC Goa and Odisha FC dropped points, while Bengaluru FC clawed back the gap.

We muse, on what might have been a potentially pivotal ISL weekend.

Mumbai City exhibit the grit required of champions

ATK Mohun Bagan was always going to be quite the test for this record-breaking Mumbai City side, especially in the absence of Jorge Pereyra Diaz and Apuia. And yet, as Lallianzuala Chhangte, Greg Stewart and Bipin Singh fluttered about the pitch in the first half, forcing Vishal Kaith into a series of fine saves, it seemed inevitable that the floodgates would open eventually.

When the unstoppable Chhangte did open the scoring, the inevitability of the result almost felt... mundane. Juan Ferrando, however, had other ideas, cleverly replacing Puitea with Lenny Rodrigues to offer a more coordinated midfield press and suddenly ATK Mohun Bagan were dominant. Mumbai City, on the back foot, being outpassed and forced into a deep block? We hadn't seen this all season.

Mumbai lost the xG battle for only the third time this season, after their opening two games of the campaign. Yet, in introducing Mourtada Fall and Mandar Rao Dessai, the table-toppers showed they had the grit to go with their guile.

Phurba Lachenpa underlined the progress he's made under Des Buckingham - once a goalkeeper who could be pressured into errors, the 24-year-old came in clutch with terrific saves, ensuring ATKMB's 1.49 xG resulted in zero goals and his sixth clean sheet of the season.

A word on ATK Mohun Bagan though - injuries have forced their hand into making a couple of excellent signings - Federico Gallego and Puitea, with reports that Anwar Ali will join them in the summer. The League Shield is out of reach this season, but they will definitely be a factor in the playoffs. After arguably deserving the win over Mumbai City, one wouldn't rule them out of lifting the ISL trophy at end of the season.

Manolo Marquez's magic isn't enough

The inevitability of football can feel a bit cruel at times. Hyderabad FC might be the reigning ISL champions, but with injuries to Chinglensana Singh and Joao Victor, and their best players struggling for form, it's a miracle that they're still in touch with Mumbai.

Dropping points was almost a foregone conclusion and against the ever-improving Chennaiyin FC, that's exactly what happened. If anything, Hyderabad deserved nothing from the game and Bartholomew Ogbeche's landmark penalty strike stole them a point.

The Manolo Marquez that appeared on TV after the game looked like he was close to a breakdown - that's what fighting against teams with greater resources for years does to a man. Literally using the phrase 'we cannot compete with Mumbai' - the Spaniard seems to have reached the end of his tether.

And yet... it's only four points. The higher powers have smiled on Hyderabad all season, what're six more games? Sana and Victor ought to return in time for a potential league decider against Mumbai on February 4th. Pull off another magic act and Marquez might have to add 'wizard' to his Coach of the Year title.

The playoff race... might actually be a race

The improving fortunes of Chennaiyin FC and Bengaluru FC were dismissed on these pages recently as a little too late, but with Goa dropping points to NorthEast, Chennaiyin improving at either end of the pitch under Thomas Brdaric and BFC outclassing Odisha, it's up for grabs now.

Just like Michael Thomas' iconic league-winning goal inspired that phrase, Roy Krishna slowed down time for his first goal in 10 games, calmly stroking home after a peach of a defence-splitting pass from Sivasakthi Narayanan.

Simon Grayson's men scored thrice for the first time this season, with his attack far more fluent than usual. Bengaluru will need their foremost Indian talent to be firing on all cylinders if they can steal a playoff spot, and no, I don't mean Sunil Chhetri.

Odisha's rut has seen them go from dark horses for the title to potentially dropping out of the playoff spots. They've never made the season's climax and their inexperience might prove costly - a six-point swing isn't unheard of in this league. Chennaiyin have a game in hand, and with their defence looking miserly for once, Petar Sliskovic could fire them to within a point of Goa in the final playoff spot.

Vincenzo Annese has a few giant killings left in him

Our mid-term grades had a few unkind things to say about NorthEast United, but Vincenzo Annese truly is a gifted manager.

He oversaw their first victory of the season, a Christmas miracle in a win over ATKMB and then saw his side deservedly earn a point against Goa. There was an element of fortune with Wilmar Jordan scoring two penalties, but NorthEast deserve some luck after a rotten season.

That his charges are still giving it all on the pitch despite the season effectively being a dead rubber speaks volumes of Annese's ability to inspire. It's no wonder Des Buckingham was in the stands watching - NEUFC could be a banana peel Mumbai would do well to avoid slipping over in their next game.

P.S. - Jamshedpur's win over East Bengal was a rare positive for Aidy Boothroyd, but with both sides effectively an irrelevance in this season's ISL... there's not much to ponder about here. A decent winner from Ritwik Das, though.