Before the 2021-22 season of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL), countless football fans had opinions on which teams would fight it out to finish at the perch of the points table post the league stages. As expected, there were differing ideas but each made a compelling case for the side they supported.

Yet, on paper, it seemed that the likes of ATK Mohun Bagan, Bengaluru FC, FC Goa and Mumbai City FC would have just enough firepower to outlast the others in the Hero ISL.

For context, the Islanders entered the campaign as defending champions, and despite a string of departures, had strengthened their side. The Mariners, meanwhile, had acquired Amrinder Singh, Hugo Boumous, Joni Kauko and Liston Colaco – players who could single-handedly win them games of football. Bengaluru FC and FC Goa had slightly younger teams but still had the requisite talent to cause a splash.

Thus, the hype around those teams was warranted. Not just because of the players at their disposal, but also because of the pedigree each club boasted. The others, namely Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC had decent squads themselves and seemed capable of causing flutters throughout the term. However, they weren’t touted to be as successful as some of the established order.

Only a handful of games remain before the 2021-22 league phase draws to a conclusion and in contrast to expectations, Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC are the teams with the best chance of claiming top spot. This, considering the pre-season hype, might have taken a few by surprise. But those who have watched these sides play in 2021-22, would vouch that they deserve every bit of the recognition they are getting.

As things stand, no team has scored more goals than Hyderabad FC have done. In 18 matches, they have made the net ripple 41 times – five more than what any other side has managed. Bartholomew Ogbeche alone has contributed to 17 of those and has popped up with an assist. Javier Siverio, whose acquisition wasn’t met with much fanfare during the off-season, has scored six important goals as well.

Defensively, too, they have been excellent. HFC might not have kept as many clean sheets as Kerala Blasters FC (they have only three shut-outs), but they have let in only 19 goals – the lowest in the league alongside Kerala Blasters FC.

Their defensive organization hasn’t had many standout performers. But when drilled together, each has performed the kind of role Manuel Marquez would have wanted them to. Their full-backs, in particular, have relished the extra responsibility their manager has placed on them.

Jamshepdur FC, though, aren’t far behind. Like Hyderabad FC, they’ve not had trouble in making the net bulge. They’ve done so on 33 occasions in 17 games – a tally only bettered by ATK Mohun Bagan, HFC and Mumbai City FC.

At the back, they have kept five clean sheets and have only shipped 20 goals – only Hyderabad FC and Kerala Blasters FC have conceded lesser this season.

Akin to Hyderabad FC, they have also found different heroes at different junctures. Greg Stewart has been their talisman but the Men of Steel have never looked a one-trick pony, especially with footballers of the ilk of Alex Lima, Ishan Pandita, Jitendra Singh, Jordan Murray, Peter Hartley and Seiminlen Doungel standing up to be counted at pivotal moments.

The one element that truly binds Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC, though, is the cohesion they have displayed throughout the season. They have relied on individual brilliance at times but they have not allowed it to become the overriding theme. The numbers will suggest that their respective fortunes have rested on Ogbeche and Stewart but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

To an extent, these players have prospered because those around them have understood their roles and have ensured that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Most tellingly, these clubs have devised a method to not get overawed by the pressure a Hero ISL season brings. Considering the frenetic nature of the league and its competitiveness, it is very easy to get bogged down and allow those with greater resources to trample over them. Neither, though, has had any of it.

Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC have ground out results. And they have also blown teams out of the water. They have held their own against their closest rivals and have done so with the sort of panache you associate with champions. There are no two ways about it too.

They have stood strong in the face of adversity, looked at it in the eye and bended the league to their liking. Not many (if any) this season, have been simultaneously as classy and gritty as these two outfits, meaning that their tussle for the top spot and a potential AFC Champions League adventure, isn’t really a surprise.

Prior to this campaign, neither team had even qualified for the Hero ISL semi-finals. Jamshedpur FC haven’t done so yet (mathematically at least) but are only millimeters away from entering fantasy land. For Hyderabad FC, this is emblematic of the turnaround they have enjoyed after a tumultuous debut season in 2019-20. 

Maybe then, it is fitting that these two behemoths will clash swords against each other on Tuesday, hoping to write another chapter into their footballing folklore. They have already done so, mind you. But you feel Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC won’t be happy by just qualifying. Their eyes are now on the AFC Champions League. And, with the way they are playing, you feel both will make a decent fist of it, if they get there.