ATK, Brandon Fernandes and Coro: The best of ISL in 2019
With 49 games out of the way, the ISL is done and dusted for 2019. The new year begins with one of the marquee clashes of the season, as FC Goa travel to Bengaluru FC.
What of the matches gone by? Which team has impressed the most and which players have been the biggest standouts?
Best team: ATK
It could be argued that FC Goa, who lead the table, have been the best but ATK nick it simply by virtue of threatening to do more damage up front in each and every game.
In Roy Krishna and David Williams, coach Antonio Habas has recruited the league's best strike partnership, and they have delivered in some style. ATK have gone scoreless in just one game -- the same as Goa -- and are the only team unbeaten at home.
Another barometer of how good they are: in matches involving champions Bengaluru FC, perhaps the only other team that can be considered an outright contender for the title, ATK registered a clinical 1-0 win at home while Goa were lucky to get a point out of a 1-1 draw at home, a match where they were outplayed for large parts.
Biggest dark horses: Mumbai City
Maybe it's their acquisition by the City Football Group, the parent company behind Premiership champions Manchester City, or just timely awakening since Goa beat them 4-2 at home, but Mumbai City have been terrific over the last month.
They took valuable points away at NorthEast United and ATK -- the 2-2 draw in Kolkata remains the only instance of ATK dropping points at home -- and have beaten Bengaluru and Jamshedpur away in a winning run in their last three matches.
Importantly, Indian players such as Sarthak Golui, Souvik Chakraborti, Raynier Fernandes and Subhasish Bose have all put in the hard yards to complement the foreign contingent. There's no guaranteeing the winning run will sustain itself in 2020, but it's just the kind of form a team needs heading into the backend of a short league like the ISL.
Best player: Coro
Coro has evolved over the last couple of seasons at FC Goa and, much like his coach Sergio Lobera, shows different shades each time.
He's one goal behind Krishna among the top scorers, but that's more down to a withdrawn role that Lobera has given him. He drops deeper, sets up attacking play for his team and invariably winds up somewhere close enough to finish the moves as well.
Lobera's big challenge might come if injury or suspension rules Coro out at some stage leading up to the knockouts, but he would then turn to his best Indian player -- who has perhaps been the best among all Indians in the league this season.
Best Indian player: Brandon Fernandes
It has been expected for a while now, and the 2019-20 season could be the one where Brandon finally comes of age. He has been excellent for club and country -- and it isn't easy to outdo Sunil Chhetri, who leads the Indian scoring charts with five strikes.
Brandon tends to start either wide or in the hole behind the striker, and his sublime deliveries have led to five goals, with two strikes against his name himself. He has the benefit of slick passers such as Ahmed Jahouh, Coro, Edu Bedia and Hugo Boumous playing with him, but Brandon is the glue that tends to hold a lot of that possession together.
His vision at opening the defence up is unparalleled, and his recent upswing in his finishing has meant Goa are often capable of chasing lost causes and earning something even out of games where they might be second-best.
Best goalkeeper: Gurpreet Singh Sandhu
Goalkeeping has been quite outstanding across the teams this season: notable performers include Amrinder Singh for Mumbai, Hyderabad FC's Kamaljit Singh and the old pros such as Subrata Pal (Jamshedpur), Arindam Bhattacharya (ATK) and Subhasish Roy Choudhury (NorthEast).
However, Gurpreet has been a solid presence between the posts for the champions, and he has needed to be one. Bengaluru began with a few injuries to key players, which left their defence weak. If they managed four clean sheets in their first five games, it was largely down to some good leadership at the back from Gurpreet.
Bengaluru have also found it tough to score goals -- their 11 goals is the poorest return among teams in the top six -- and Gurpreet will have to stay solid if they have to turn their form around in 2020, when they will also have to deal with the added distraction of the AFC Cup.