ISL 2021-22: Entertaining highs, dubious lows

The eighth season of the Indian Super League was by far the most closely-contested and entertaining campaign. Here’s a look back at the best and worst from the season gone by.

Miracle maker: Manuel ‘Manolo’ Marquez, joined Hyderabad FC last season right after the club’s bottom-placed finish in its debut campaign and has reversed its fortunes in some style!   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

Hyderabad FC’s rise to the top, Kerala Blasters’ fairytale campaign and Jamshedpur FC’s League-winning run — it’s safe to say the eighth season of the Indian Super League was by far the most closely-contested and entertaining campaign. It was a season that saw the emergence of new young talents like Noarem Roshan Singh and Prabhsukhan Gill. At the same time, stalwarts like Laxmikant Kattimani and Bartholomew Ogbeche proved themselves yet again.

READ: The coronation of the Nizams

Best of the season

Manolo’s at the wheel... and the only stop was the title

Manolo Marquez — leader, mentor, legend. The Spaniard joined Hyderabad FC last season right after the club’s bottom-placed finish in its debut campaign and has reversed its fortunes in some style! After missing out on the playoffs by a whisker last season, the Nizams became the first team to qualify for the last-four stage this time around with as many as four games to spare. Manolo, roped in as a replacement for Albert Roca, who went to work with Ronald Koeman at Barcelona, did well to retain his side’s spine and made only those signings that were truly needed. He managed to acquire the services of serial scorer Ogbeche, as a replacement for Aridane Santana, and the Nigerian did not disappoint. He struck a club-best 18 goals and also grabbed the Golden Boot as he powered Hyderabad FC to its maiden title. Hyderabad’s success tale is an embodiment of Drake’s track “Started from the bottom”.

READ: A joyous return after 735 days of exile

Manolo stuck to his tried and tested Indian youngsters in Akash Mishra, Asish Rai and Mohammad Yasir and brought in the experience of the likes of Juanan as the side displayed the perfect harmony of talent.

But the biggest story of them all has to be Kattimani’s. From scoring an own-goal and letting in another a mere minute later, he had lost FC Goa the 2015 ISL final. Seven years on, Kattimani stood between the same sticks at the same venue, the Fatorda Stadium, and emerged the hero this time around as he produced three stunning saves in the penalty shootout against Kerala Blasters in the final. That’s a redemption tale like none other.

Owen Coyle’s sorcery and Greg Stewart’s wizardry

Job well done: Owen Coyle put in the hard yards and propelled Jamshedpur to the ISL League Winners Shield, but is unlikely to be around to defend the title as he has since parted ways with the club.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

 

Owen Coyle is one of the most respected managers in the League and there’s good reason for that — he took Chennaiyin from the near-bottom to the final in 2019-20 and has since been working on Jamshedpur’s ascent to the top. Coyle did not assemble an all-star team like the pre-season title favourites ATK Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City FC did. He set up a team sprinkled with young Indian talent and the move paid rich dividends as the likes of Ritwik Das, Laldinliana Renthlei and Boris Singh Thangjam revelled in their roles.

And then there was Greg Stewart. The Greg Stewart, scorer of the most exquisite goals and a passer of the top order. Stewart’s magic on the ball and wizardry from set-pieces made for captivating viewing. Coyle put in the hard yards and propelled Jamshedpur to the ISL League Winners Shield, but is unlikely to be around to defend the title as he has since parted ways with the club.

joy to watch: Greg Alexander James Stewart’s wizardry from set-pieces for Jamshedpur FC made for a captivating watch.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

 

Kerala Blasters’ enviable season

Kerala Blasters — the club with one of the most active fan bases in the county - gave its faithful plenty to cheer for this season as it re-wrote records for fun. Ivan Vukomanovic's men earned their most points ever in a single campaign (34), scored their most goals in a season (37), recorded their longest unbeaten run (10) and made it to the final for the first time since 2016. Vukomanovic trusted his youngsters, had a phenomenal attacking quartet and unearthed a gem in Prabhsukhan (who won the Golden Glove) as the Blasters decimated opponents one after the other, but fell short at the last stage of asking.

Irrespective of the final outcome, it was a season to remember for Kerala Blasters and Vukomanovic's arrival was vital to it all. As assistant coach Ishfaq Ahmed says, “It was very easy to work with Ivan, we have a great understanding. I have to give him credit because he is very approachable and he has truly made a difference here."

Ivan remains Kerala Blasters’ most successful coach thus far and it remains to be seen if the club can hold on to the Serbian manager for another season.

Worst of the season

The nasty COVID outbreaks

The season got off to a rollicking start with minute bumps but no one expected a full-blown COVID outbreak in early January. The omicron variant of the coronavirus had well and truly wreaked havoc. Almost every team had multiple cases and at one point the League’s future looked uncertain. Martin Bain, CEO of the League’s organiser Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), wrote in an email to the clubs that they would “try and reschedule” a match if a team cannot field a minimum of 15 players. He added that if rescheduling was not possible, then the opposition would be awarded a 3-0 win. If both teams were short of players, then it would be considered as a goalless draw.

A handful of games were rescheduled and Odisha FC, FC Goa, ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters camps were hit hard. Players were cooped up in their rooms for nearly a week and most teams could not train in the build-up to their matches.

“Of all the teams we were following all the regulations. But the bubble just exploded. We were promised that we would be safe in the bio-bubble. But that was not the case. We don’t care about the game tomorrow. We still have COVID cases in the camp and we do not know how many players will sit in the bus tomorrow.

We are not ready to play football,” Kerala Blasters coach Ivan Vukomanovic said on the eve of his side’s game against Bengaluru FC on January 30.

The Blasters were on a record unbeaten streak and topped the table, but over 20 players had tested positive and the team was subsequently locked in for nearly three weeks.

Edu Bedia, FC Goa’s captain, had also expressed his ire on Instagram. “Players are losing interest and the desire to continue to compete. They continue to play to collect their contracts without any ambition. This is what has been achieved with this year's rules. Whether you like it or not, all the people inside the bio-bubble just want March to come and the league to end, whatever the outcome."

Foot-in-mouth: Sandesh Jhingan of ATK Mohun Bagan was in the news for the wrong reasons after being caught on camera saying "I have played a match with women", as he was leaving the ground. The defender apologised a day later after receiving severe backlash and was also warned by the national federation.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

 

A dubious case of added time for ATK Mohun Bagan and Jhingan’s sexist remark

Alex Ferguson has not graced the ISL yet but the ‘Fergie Time’ — excessive injury time — has found its way into the League. ATK Mohun Bagan has more often than not benefited from this, received a staggering seven (yes, 7!) added minutes in both of its must-win semifinal games against Hyderabad FC. And this wasn’t the first time. It happened a few times in the League too. With the “Boycott ATK” movement chugging along on social media, matters got further complicated for the club management when Sandesh Jhingan was caught on camera saying "I have played a match with women," in a snippet as he was leaving the ground.

The defender apologised a day later after receiving severe backlash and was also warned by the national federation. Racism and sexism — two things that need to be kicked off the football pitch.

Forgettable run: Nerijus Valskis of Chennaiyin FC (left), who took the club to the 2019-20 final and won the Golden Boot for his 15 goals, was a flop show this season as he managed just two goals.   -  Focus Sports/ ISL

 

Crivellaro’s injury and Valskis’ return to Chennaiyin

Much of Chennaiyin FC’s creativity in midfield and attacking play depended on Rafael Crivellaro’s feet. But the Brazilian picked up a Grade 2 muscle injury during pre-season and was subsequently released for the remainder of the season. With the side sorely lacking any attacking intent under former coach Bozidar Bandovic, whose line-ups and style of play baffled many, Chennaiyin FC’s prodigal son Nerijus Valskis was brought in for the second half of the season. The Lithuanian, who took the club to the 2019-20 final and won the Golden Boot for his 15 goals, was a flop show as he managed just two goals. He was expected to revive the club’s hopes of making it to the playoffs but he sunk with the team as it finished a lowly eighth — the same as last season.