Atletico de Kolkata, FC Goa tipped for Indian Super League playoff success
The second edition of the Indian Super League reaches its climax in the coming days as four teams battle it out in the playoffs, which will culminate with the final in Goa on Dec. 20.
The semifinal line-up sees Delhi Dynamos face FC Goa (Dec. 11 and 15) while reigning champions Atletico de Kolkata will take on Chennaiyin FC face (Dec. 12 and 16).
Here is a look at the final four.
Managed by Brazilian legend Roberto Carlos, the Dynamos have emerged as the season's surprise package. Few expected them to make it to the semifinals following wholesale changes to the side following the inaugural edition of the ISL last year.
Carlos has blended experience with emerging talent, with veterans like John Arne Riise and Flourent Malouda playing alongside youngsters such as Indian striker Robin Singh and Adil Nabi, a product of the West Bromwich Albion academy, who is the first Premier League player to have gone on loan to an ISL club. With three goals in nine appearances and some good all-round performances, Nabi has impressed his manager.
For most of the season, Delhi have had the season's best defence although the six goals they conceded in their final two matches gave some cause for concern. They have also struggled in front of goal, hitting the back of the net only 18 times, which is the fewest of any of the semifinalists.
Former Chelsea and France midfielder Malouda has been at the centre of most of Delhi's creative play but this is probably the weakest of those teams that have made it to the business end of the season. Delhi have done well to get this far but getting to Goa for the ISL final might be beyond them.
Table toppers at the end of the league stages, this is a side that has played arguably the most attractive football in the ISL, thanks in no small part to Brazilian flair. Not only are Goa managed by Zico but he has seven of his countryman in the squad to keep him company.
With 29 goals, Goa will enter the semifinals as the league's top scorers and, along the way, they registered the biggest-ever ISL win, thrashing Mumbai City FC 7-0. Nothing encapsulates the attitude and ability of this side more than its final game, in which they sealed top spot with a 3-2 win -- having been 2-0 down -- over Delhi.
Veteran midfield playmaker Leonardo da Silva Moura has used his wealth of experience acquired at some of Brazil's biggest clubs to inspire Goa to a number of eye-catching outings while World Cup winner Lucio has been a steadying influence at the back. Meanwhile, Reinaldo Da Cruz Oliveira, with seven goals in 10 appearances is another veteran who has flourished.
The only concern for Zico is that he will be without suspended marquee signing Lucio for the first leg of the semifinal. Goa were beaten at this stage last season but given their performances so far, they deserve to reach this year's final, which takes place on their home ground. It would be a surprise if they do not.
Atletico de Kolkata
The title holders narrowly missed out on top spot in the table following a thrilling 3-2 defeat at home to Mumbai City FC in their final match of the league stages. The result was uncharacteristic for a team that has been one of the ISL's most consistent performers, boasting the second best defence and attack.
Cheered on by some of the tournament's largest and most passionate crowds, Atletico are living proof of the old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Manager Antonio Lopez Habas was also in charge last year and has kept the foundations of the team that delivered the inaugural ISL trophy, while making some vital additions such as Canadian Iain Hume, who signed from Kerala Blasters and scored an impressive 10 goals in the league stages.
Habas is a coach who understands Indian playing conditions and is getting the best out of the local footballers in his side, including goalkeeper Arminder Singh, who has been one of the ISL's best domestic performers.
Despite injuries to some key players, including marquee signing Helder Postiga, who suffered ligament damage in his first match after scoring two goals and has not featured since, this is a well-drilled unit that plays with confidence and belief.
Kolkata is considered India's football capital and their fans will be optimistic of overcoming Chennaiyin FC and making a second straight trip to the ISL final.
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Less than three weeks ago this was a side that was bottom of the league table. However, like their manager, the formidable former Italian defender and World Cup winner Marco Materazzi, Chennaiyin are made of stern stuff and four consecutive wins ensured a semifinal berth.
As you would expect with any side organised by Materazzi, this is a team with a solid defence that conceded a paltry 15 goals, the fewest of any side in the league stages. However, that does not mean they have not dazzled in other parts of the pitch.
Attacking midfielder Elano, last season's ISL top scorer with eight goals, has once again been the inspirational driving force. His countryman Raphael Augusto, who has less flair but more bite in the middle of the park has been another standout performer.
Two others who have helped the team's late surge are young Indian striker Jeje Lalpekhlua, who has scored an impressive five goals in eight appearances, as well as Colombian John Stiven Mendoza, whose 11 goals made him top scorer of the league stages.
Chennaiyin enter the semifinals in a rich vein of form and their opponents will be wary of facing a side that has grown stronger as the tournament has progressed.
Vivek Chaudhary covers FIFA and the financial side of the game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @viveksport