On Sunday December 6, the last league game of 2015 Hero Indian Super League was played at Delhi between Delhi Dynamos and FC Goa. The two teams had already cemented their places in the Final Four but Goa’s thrilling 3-2 win afforded them the top-spot finish ahead of Atletico de Kolkata. Chennaiyin FC were third while Delhi Dynamos took the fourth spot. To their big disappointment, last year’s runner-up Kerala Blasters finished last out of eight teams. While there was not much doubt about Goa and Delhi making it to the knock-out phase, Chennaiyin FC made remarkable progress in closing stages of the league season. The 2015 ISL semifinals on home-and-away basis get underway on December 11. The first match will be a repeat of last league game between Delhi and Goa at Delhi, while in the other semifinal on December 12; Chennaiyin FC will host Atletico de Kolkata at Pune because Chennai ground is yet to be game-ready after last week’s torrential rains. The teams will switch places for the second-leg matches on December 15 & 16. The semifinal winners will travel to Goa for the Grand Finale on December 20 at the Fatorda stadium in Margao.
One team that struggled most in second season was Chennaiyin FC. Beginning with back-to-back losses, Chennai also suffered three successive defeats at one time. Regardless, even when pushed hard, Chennai staged a marvelous comeback later in the season to win four matches in a row that sealed their place in the semifinals. ATK was another team, which had setbacks this season. Many ATK stars were sidelined due to injury and one among them was their marquee player Helder Postiga. Others, who couldn’t play in all matches; were Josemi, Javi Lara and Arata Izumi. The absence of these influential players reflected in ATK’s three consecutive defeats but the team still made it to semifinal after they scored a 4-1 home victory against FC Pune on November 27, riding on Canadian forward Iain Hume’s spectacular hat-trick.
Delhi Dynamos looked like getting the Final-Four berth in early stages but a few defeats later in the tournament caused pushed them down. In the end, however, Delhi went through by beating North-East United FC 2-1 on November 28 and drawing 3-3 with Kerala on December 3. For the second season, Delhi drafted the services of some crucial players. One among them was Frenchman Florent Malouda, who became the provider of the best assists to his forwards. While the defense line was immaculate, Delhi forwards were not found wanting in attack either. Although Delhi lost their first match 0-2 to Goa on October 4, they registered three successive victories over Chennaiyin FC on October 8; FC Pune on October 14 and Kerala Blasters on October 18. Delhi had a great time in 2016 season under the tutelage of former Brazil defender Roberto Carlos.
FC Goa, however, was the only team that remained in top four from the beginning and played with fierce determination. They registered ISL’s biggest win after dismantling Mumbai FC 7-0 at Fatorda on November 17 and their semifinal qualification was marked with a 5-1 thrashing of Kerala Blasters at Kochi on November 29. In the thrilling encounter against Delhi Dynamos in the last league game of 2016 ISL on December 6, Goa rallied after a 0-2 deficit and turned the tables on hosts Delhi with a 3-2 final score. Zico’s men look in fine fettle and they will meet Delhi once again in the first leg of their semifinal at Delhi on December 11.
Defending champions Atletico de Kolkata will take on Chennaiyin FC in the first leg of the other semifinal on December 12 at Pune. Heavy rains at Chennai have precluded the possibility of playing in Chennaiyin FC’s home ground and Pune was fixed as the venue instead. For Chennaiyin FC fans, the change of venue will be a huge setback since they have been supporting their team, regardless of their poor performance in early phase of the league.
The organizers of Hero Indian Super League would be pleased that the second season of the tournament has been extremely satisfactory. The high standard of the game will certainly rub on local footballers playing shoulder to shoulder with world-class stars. In 56 league games so far, 171 goals were scored and 45 of them came from Indian players. Sunil Chhetri of Mumbai City FC emerged as the top tournament scorer with 7 goals while Chennai’s Jeje Lalpekhlua and ATK’s Arata Izumi scored 5 goals each. Other Indian scorers were; Kerala Blasters’ Mohammed Rafi (4 goals), Delhi’s Robin Singh (3 goals), Goa’s Thongkhosiem Haokip (3 goals), Goa’s Mandar Rao Desai (3 goals), Pune’s Eugeneson Lyngdoh (2 goals) and Goa’s Romeo Fernandes (2 goals). ISL in 2016 had players from 21 nations in the eight franchises and as years go by; this number is bound to swell.