The old order changeth, yielding place to new

Chennaiyin FC, and the team it beat to lift the title last year, FC Goa, came a cropper this time, finishing at the bottom of the ISL table. As for NorthEast United FC and FC Pune City, it was a case of being so near and yet so agonisingly far, as they failed to realise their dreams of figuring in the play-off for the third straight season, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

The absence of Elano Blumer and Stiven Mendoza (in pic), who moved to MLS, created a vacuum in Chennayin FC's forward line. This undermined the franchise's strength this season.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

Elano Blumer… the striker who inspired Chennaiyin FC to title-triumph last season.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

John Arne Riise of Chennaiyin FC attempts to tackle Emiliano Alfaro of NorthEast United FC during an ISL match. Chennaiyin FC coach Marco Materazzi rebuilt his team around Riise, but the former Liverpool player failed to fire up the side.   -  ISL/SPORTZPICS

It has been a tumultuous Indian Super League this season, with the defending champion and the runner-up finishing at the bottom of the table. The proficiency that Chennaiyin FC, and the team it beat to lift the title last year, FC Goa, showed in the last two seasons wore out in the third, reducing them to uncharacteristic mediocrity. And for NorthEast United FC and FC Pune City, it was a case of being so near and yet so agonisingly far, as they failed to realise their dreams of figuring in the play-off for the third straight season.

The failure of these sides had a lot to do with team selection and performance on the field. The happenings off the field too have had an effect on the performance and spirit of the team. In football, the team that handles the extraneous incidents and pressures well does best on the field. The bitter final of 2015 and the resultant violent incidents on the field influenced a lot of the changes in both Chennaiyin FC and FC Goa.

Elano Blumer, the Brazilian playmaker and one of the chief architects of Chennaiyin FC’s title-triumph last year, hung up his boots, apparently unable to cope with the ignominy of being arrested by the police in Goa, where the final was played. The prolific Colombian, Stiven Mendoza, Elano’s partner in attack, moved to Major League Soccer in the USA, which created a vacuum in Chennaiyin FC’s forward line.

The violent incidents had a different effect on FC Goa. The principal owners of the team, Srinivas Dempo and Dattaraj Salgaocar, quit in “deep distress”, as the ISL Disciplinary Committee slapped heavy fines and sanctions on them. Though a large part of the penalties, including a ban on the two, were overturned by an appeals committee later, the two respected names in Indian football administration felt they had enough. FC Goa’s new administration retained its faith in the legendary Brazilian, Zico, and asked him to coach the team for the third straight season. However, as FC Goa sought to recover from the controversial incidents, its strength seemed to have been diluted.

Much like Goa, Chennaiyin FC too retained its coach, the Italian World Cup winner, Marco Materazzi. He rebuilt the team around Norwegian defender, John Arne Riise, but the former Liverpool player failed to fire up the side despite Chennaiyin FC management signing players such as the Italian forwards, Davide Succi and Maurizio Peluso, and the Dutch midfielder, Hans Mulder. In the end, five defeats and six draws defined the chasm between the team’s planning and execution. Chennaiyin FC finished a disappointing seventh, a rung above bottom-placed FC Goa.

Handling a fragmented side that sought to rely on stalwarts such as Lucio, Gregory Arnolin and Julio Cesar, Zico could not find the combination that could lend consistency to FC Goa. The franchise, now principally owned by Jaydev Mody, was criticised for its team selection, which many said were determined by the commission to be paid for those entrusted with the responsibility of scouting for players. In the end, with eight defeats in 14 matches, Goa slipped to the bottom of the table.

Zico, who for long has been a votary of fielding more Indian players to make the ISL meaningful, stuck to his philosophy by employing a predominantly Indian cast in a number of matches.

NorthEast United FC, which galvanised the football passion of eight states of the region, flattered to deceive. This was the second successive season that the team narrowly missed the play-offs. The team management has remained uncannily restive with regard to the team selection all these seasons. It was evident even in the coaching department, where NEUFC made four changes in three seasons.

NEUFC announced a new squad, which retained just one foreign player — Argentine forward Nicolas Velez — while revamping the whole team that had failed to make it to the play-offs even last year, under Venezuelan coach Cesar Farias. Having dumped Cesar, the team started the pre-season under Brazilian coach Sergio Farias before the latter decided to seek his fortune elsewhere just before the start of the tournament. Nelo Vingada, the Portuguese coach with a treasure of experience, finally took over the team and helped it stay on top of the table for an ISL record of 25 days. But with four successive losses and two draws the team hit a slump. Vingada tried to arrest NEUFC’s slide but in vain. And compounding his problems were injuries to his key players and suspensions of some.

FC Pune City employed Spaniard Antonio Habas, who guided Atletico de Kolkata to the championship in the inaugural season. Habas, who spent a major part of his time in understanding and realigning his squad, which was almost 90 percent new, failed to work his magic with Pune. The team made a late resurgence and came close to entering the play-offs, but with three rounds to go, it suffered two losses — in the 12th and 13th rounds — that put paid to Pune’s expectations.

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