The ISL came to an end on Saturday with ATK Mohun Bagan's victory over Bengaluru FC in the final -- after Mumbai City FC had earlier been crowned league shield winners. Some new foreigners set the league on fire and some existing foreigners continued to show their excellence, but a key feature of this season was the number of Indians who took the mantle of being game-changers upon themselves, including ESPN India's player of the season -- Lallianzuala Chhangte.
The winner: Lallianzuala Chhangte
There was not much to deliberate about this. Before the season began, Mumbai City coach Des Buckingham said that his staff had worked with Chhangte to ensure an improved output in the final third. That work was necessary, because the winger had scored just five goals in the last two ISL seasons. The fruits of that work were already seen at the Durand Cup, where he was the top-scorer with seven goals. But in the ISL, Chhangte hit a completely different level altogether.
For a period of about three months, there was a predictability about the outcome when Chhangte cut in on his left foot from the right flank, a la Arjen Robben. Some of those goals - against ATKMB and Bengaluru FC at the Mumbai Football Arena, then against ATKMB away were those of a man who had utmost belief in his own ability. That ability had always been there, but this season, it exploded to life on the biggest stage in Indian football. He revelled in the company of Greg Stewart, Jorge Pereyra Diaz, and Bipin Singh and made merry with his team's expansive style of play; a style that brought Mumbai City 56 goals in 22 games this season. Chhangte contributed to 16 of those 56, scoring 10 and assisting a further six.
He scored a variety of goals from different distances and angles. In Buckingham's system, he was the complete inside-forward. Be it the stunning long-range drive that went in off the underside of Vishal Kaith's bar or the perfect poacher's finish to begin Mumbai City's comeback in Jamshedpur, Chhangte showed that his speed and skill now had a solid ally in goalscoring instinct. He knew where to be, when to be, and most importantly, he knew how to put the ball in the back of the net from where he was.
How Des Buckingham inspired Mumbai City to a record-breaking ISL season
He scored decisive goals as well -- six out of his 10 goals came when Mumbai City were either level or trailing in games. He wasn't just scoring goals to pile on opposition misery (which Mumbai City did very often), he was scoring the goals that mattered, and that is what has set him apart from other players this season. The regularity with which Chhangte was the difference-maker to the side that finished top of the league can just not be ignored.
The ISL Hero of the League award, too, went to Chhangte, making him the second Indian after Sunil Chhetri to win the award. This season, Chhangte was sensational, for Mumbai City, and as a winger reborn. Don't be surprised if his sights are set on repeating this all over again next season.
The other contenders: Dimitrios Petratos and Greg Stewart
With 12 goals and 7 assists, Dimitrios Petratos has contributed to 67.9% of ATK Mohun Bagan's goals this season. He had an unenviable role to play, coming into a side that had lost Roy Krishna and David Williams in the off-season. Petratos stood up and ensured that in a stop-start season for them, Juan Ferrando's side were still in contention.
The final, where he scored twice, was another reminder of just how clinical he is. He might not be your typical striker, he will not always occupy the centre-backs, he won't always be in the box, but put a ball at Petratos's feet, he will conjure something up, as far away from goal as he may be. In the final, it looked as if he was placing those penalties on the side-netting to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu's right almost on auto-pilot. The precision, the poise, the composure... Without Dimi Petratos, ATK Mohun Bagan would not be ISL champions. It really is that simple.
Speaking of conjuring something with the ball at your feet, how can one miss out on Greg Stewart? The numbers will tell you of his 7 goals and 8 assists this season being a step-down from his 10 goals and 10 assists last season, but that doesn't tell you half the story of what he brought to this Mumbai City team. In an attack that had our POTS, Bipin Singh and Jorge Pereyra Diaz, Stewart was happy to play the role of a facilitator.
Greg Stewart: 'I was always meant to be a footballer, I just took a different journey'
They did the hard running, they did the threatening in the box, but around them, there was Stewart always - seeing those passes no one else in this league can see, taking some of the most heavenly touches, just making that little round thing at his feet obey his every instruction. When it comes off, which is most often, it is a treat. Sample his two free-kicks on the day that Mumbai City were crowned winners of the league shield - just gentle caresses of the ball, enough to cause a whole lot of damage. He was pretty awesome all season long.