Hero ISL 2019-20: The season that was

The Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) 2019-20 came to a conclusion last Saturday with ATK FC overcoming Chennaiyin FC in a closely-fought final at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Goa and becoming the first team to lift the trophy thrice. The match brought to an end an intriguing six-month long football season, which presented a roller coaster ride, in varying degrees, for each of the ten teams involved.

Looking back, here's a reminder of how each of the ten teams fared this season.

ATK FC: Back to the perch after two seasons of disappointments

Having finished outside of the top four in the Hero ISL 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns, there was an obvious intent in ATK's approach to the season with the club roping in multiple big name players like Roy Krishna, David Williams and others, whilst giving the reins of the team back to Antonio Lopez Habas, who, during his first stint with the club, led the team to the title in the inaugural season back in 2014. Despite losing the season opener to Kerala Blasters, ATK roared back and put in some dominating displays in the league phase to finish second on the table to qualify for the semis for the first time in three seasons. Even though they lost the first leg of the semis 1-0 against defending champions Bengaluru, Habas' men bounced back in the second leg to progress to the final with a 3-2 aggregate win and followed it up with a clinical display in the title decider against the Marina Machans to clinch their landmark third title.

Chennaiyin FC: A miracle unfinished

The two-time champions made a disastrous start to the season and were languishing near the bottom of the league after six matches, having secured just five points. The underwhelming start forced a change at the helm with Owen Coyle replacing former head coach John Gregory. Coyle’s arrival instantly ignited a spark in the team as they engineered a miraculous turanround to squeeze into the top four - a feat which seemed borderline impossible at the time of Coyle’s appointment. After edging out the mighty Goa 6-5 on aggregate over the two-legged semis, Coyle's Chennaiyin did earn a shot at the title but unfortunately, couldn't quite script the desired fairytale ending as they went down 3-1 to ATK in the final.

FC Goa: Top of the league but wait for the title continues

After a bit of a mixed start to their campaign, last season's runners up FC Goa began reclaiming the staggering levels of consistency associated with them and stayed near the top of the table consistently. Despite the surprising change at helm at the beginning of February which saw long-time head coach Sergio Lobera depart, there was no visible dip in the team's form as the Gaurs continued their surge under interim coach Clifford Miranda and saw off a stiff challenge from ATK to finish the league stage at the top of the table, thereby winning the first-ever League Winners Shield. With the accomplishment, the Gaurs also qualified for the group stage of the AFC Champions League 2021, a feat which will make them the first team from India to feature in Asia's top footballing competition. In the semis, however, Goa faltered as they lost the first leg 4-1 against Chennaiyin. The Gaurs won the second leg 4-2, almost pulling off an unlikely comeback, but it wasn't quite enough as they lost out on a spot in the final after going down 6-5 on aggregate. Despite the disappointing end to the campaign, Goa can take solace from their summit finish and the AFC Champions League qualification. The team also scored a whopping 51 goals in 20 matches - the most recorded by any team in any single season of the Hero ISL.

Bengaluru FC: Strong at the back but let down by the attack

The Hero ISL 2018-19 champions were solid for large parts of the season, with a strong defence forming the core of their title defence. Cuadrat's men kept 10 clean sheets in their 18 league phase matches this season, finishing 3rd in the table. Their miserly backline also affected another shutout in the first leg of their semifinal clash against ATK as they took a 1-0 advantage into the second leg. However, the Blues couldn't keep hold of their lead as they succumbed to a 3-1 loss to the eventual champions in Kolkata and crashed out, marking an end to their title defence. Having lost Miku heading into the season, Bengaluru struggled in front of goal, needing to rely heavily on captain Sunil Chhetri and set pieces to score. Despite their defence keeping a record 11 clean sheets in 20 outings, the Blues' offence managed just 24 goals throughout the season, which turned detrimental for the side eventually.

Mumbai City FC: Almost, but not quite

In a season which seemed to be turning out to be a carbon copy of their 2018-19 campaign, the Islanders started slowly, picking up just seven points from their first seven games of the season. However, a turnaround followed as Jorge Costa's men dragged themselves back in contention for the top four with a solid run which saw them pick up nineteen points in their following nine matches, relying on the pragmatic counter-attacking style often associated with Costa's teams. Unlike last season, however, Mumbai couldn't see it through as an underwhelming final charge and injuries to key personnel like Paulo Machado saw them lose out on the fourth spot following back-to-back losses in their final two matches of the campaign. With 26 points to their name, Mumbai finished fifth in the table.

Odisha FC: One for the future?

The Hero ISL newcomers didn't quite make the start they were looking for in the initial stages, struggling to pick up important points early on in their campaign. Adding to their woes was the fact that the team had to play their first three home matches in Pune instead of their designated home ground at the Kalyani Stadium in Bhubaneswar. Once they returned to their home, however, Josep Gombau's young side rallied and got themselves back in contention for the top four against all odds, primarily due to their stellar run in Bhubaneswar. Whilst Aridane Santana's departure was indeed a big blow for the club, Manuel Onwu hitting the ground running after his loan move from Bengaluru somewhat compensated for Santana's loss. Despite the inspired final run, however, the slow start to their season had left them with too much ground to cover in their bid to make the top four. The team eventually finished sixth in the table, but earned widespread plaudits for their attractive brand of open football, primarily facilitated by a very young and dynamic side.

Kerala Blasters FC: A season marred by injuries

Kerala started their season with a 2-1 come from behind victory over eventual champions ATK in the opening day but it all went downhill for Eelco Schattorie's men from there on as they remained winless in their next nine outings. In Schattorie’s defence, a slew of key injuries and missing talisman Sandesh Jhingan for the entirety of the season meant the Dutchman was unable to field a strong starting XI consistently, which contributed heavily to their downfall. With the front two – Bartholomew Ogbeche and Messi Bouli – striking up a formidable partnership in the latter half of the campaign, Kerala did pick up a few wins and put on some solid displays in the closing stages of the league phase, but never quite posed a serious threat to break into the top four. Despite their disappointing campaign, a double over eventual champions ATK will be the highlight of their season.

Jamshedpur FC: Strong start but fizzled out

Under Antonio Iriondo, Jamshedpur made a strong start to the season picking up 10 points from their first five matches and looked one of the favourites for the top four early on. But an injury to striker Sergio Castel and playmaker Piti saw them fall off the wagon from there on out as they managed only eight points from their following 13 matches, eventually finishing eighth. Amidst their worst campaign yet, few positives came out with youngsters like Narender Gahlot, Aniket Jadhav, Amarjit Singh, Jitendra Singh and Sandip Mandi enjoying eye-catching breakthrough seasons.

NorthEast United FC: Didn’t recover after Gyan’s departure

Having made it to the semi-final for the first time in their history last season, much was expected of the Highlanders in Hero ISL 2019-20 and having started well under Croatian head coach Robert Jarni, it seemed that the Highlanders may be able to replicate their success from 2018-19 campaign. NorthEast were unbeaten in their first six matches this season, picking up 10 points in the process. However, from there on, Jarni’s men followed a similar trajectory to Jamshedpur. Most of NorthEast’s early successes were pivoted on the contributions on Ghanaian icon Asamoah Gyan, who made a flying start to his time in India. An unfortunate injury, however, ended his season prematurely and the Highlanders never quite recovered after losing their talisman. NorthEast were winless in their last 14 matches this season and finished ninth with just 14 points to their name. The team also had the worst offensive tally in the division, managing to score just 16 times in 18 matches.

Hyderabad FC: Never took off

Playing there first-ever Hero ISL, Hyderabad FC’s campaign began with a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of eventual champions ATK and never quite took off from there. The team only managed two wins in their 18 matches this campaign, with the first coming at home against Kerala and the other being a 5-1 away win over NorthEast in the final match of their campaign. Hyderabad finished bottom with just 10 points from 18 matches. Fans, however, can take heart from the fact that the team’s performance levels went up considerably after interim head coach Javier Gurri Lopez took over the reins from former head coach Phil Brown in the closing stages of the season. With Albert Roca slated to take charge of the season from next season, Hyderabad have already started rebuilding to put up a much stronger front in the 2020-21 season.

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