ISL takeaways: Consistent BFC, high-flying Goa
The Indian Super League (ISL) wound up its league stage over the weekend, with Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa joining Bengaluru FC and FC Pune City as the four semi-finalists for the season. Jamshedpur FC and Kerala Blasters came within a whisker of making the top four, but there's little doubt that these four teams have all stood out from the rest.
Here are the four key takeaways from the group stages, that produced 247 goals, five hat-tricks and some late drama.
Consistency brings reward for Bengaluru
BFC's success this year was built around two themes - their positive brand of football and consistency. BFC always looked for a result, and coach Albert Roca was able to field his best team early in the season, a hat-tip to how well the support staff worked on the squad's fitness.
This stood in contrast to virtually every other team, who had key players break down at some point through the season: Dimitar Berbatov for Kerala Blasters, Anas Edathodika for Jamshedpur FC and Robbie Keane for ATK; all teams that failed to make the play-offs. Roca's rotation also helped as BFC were the only team in the league with AFC Cup playoff commitments.
Miku provided the cutting edge in attack that BFC lacked last season, and with Sunil Chhetri providing good support, the duo combined for 24 of 35 goals scored. BFC's 13 wins for the season, seven of them on the road, have already broken the record for most wins in a completed ISL (nine by Chennaiyin FC in their victorious 2015 campaign) and it is difficult to look beyond them as favourites to lift the title.
The fall of the champions
Somehow ATK's divorce with Atletico Madrid didn't work out for the two-time champions. It was a forgettable season right from the start, with the most-expensive Indian acquisition in the draft, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, one of many key players who missed most of the season through injury.
Teddy Sheringham as manager could never get any sort of form going, and Ashley Westwood, who stepped in as interim coach after his sack, failed to stem the rot in a six-match winless spell.
Attendance in Kolkata was among the lowest for the season, and ESPN understands ISL are contemplating shifting the final, shifted from Kochi to the Salt Lake Stadium just before the season began, to Bengaluru.
The Indian stars
With an extra player in the starting lineup from this fourth season, Indians got to play a bigger role in defence and midfield across the field. The standout Indian player of the season was Adil Khan of FC Pune City, who underlined his utility as both defender and midfielder whenever his coach Ranko Popovic needed him.
Khan was key to breaking down play in the middle of the pitch, but his biggest contribution came in the attacking third, scoring four goals, three of which led to Pune victories.
The extra Indian player saw goalkeeping almost entirely dependent on Indians -- Kerala Blasters and ATK were the only teams to feature foreign players in goal -- and Gurpreet Sandhu, Vishal Kaith, Amrinder Singh and Subrata Pal all did their bit for their respective clubs.
Other Indian names that stood out this season were Jamshedpur striker Jerry Mawhminthanga, who scored the fastest goal in the league's history and Udanta Singh of BFC, who continued to impress as one of the best wingers this season. Two India regulars who weren't able to live up to their expectations were Chennaiyin's Jeje Lalpekhlua and Rowllin Borges of NorthEast United.
Goa - the best strike force
Miku and Chhetri were excellent, but nothing compared to Goa's attacking line of Coro and Manuel Lanzarote. Coro registered 18 goals and five assists, starting every single game for Goa, while Lanzarote had 12 goals and six assists which saw Goa lead the charts as the best attacking team this season, 7 goals more than top-placed Bengaluru FC.
With three matches left, and still not sure of making the semi-finals, Goa scored 12 goals and conceded just one, with Coro netting five and Lanzarote four. Their interplay was exceptional, with the support of another Spaniard Edu Bedia in the midfield, with both players showing the ability to pop up in perfect positions to receive balls and splitting the opposition defences at will.
Indian players like midfielders Mandar Rao Desai, Brandon Fernandes, full-backs Narayan Das and Seriton Fernandes weighed in with their performances too, though Goa did wobble after a breezy start, owing to a leaky defence that for most part stayed right up the charts in terms of most goals conceded.