There are just five more Matchweeks left to go before the end of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2022-23 league stage. Fighting for pride, points, the playoffs, silverware; there’s a lot at stake for Hero ISL teams as Matchweek 18 commences in February.

Matchweek 17 saw Jamshedpur FC join NorthEast United FC as the second team to be eliminated from the playoffs this season, following a narrow defeat to league leaders Mumbai City FC. However, the rest of the teams apart from Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC, have all to play for with four Hero ISL playoff spots still up for grabs. 

Chennaiyin FC host Odisha FC in the opening fixture of Matchweek 18, followed by East Bengal FC welcoming an in-form Kerala Blasters FC side in Kolkata.

Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC lock horns in Saturday’s double header, with NorthEast United FC taking on Jamshedpur FC later on in the day. Matchweek 18 will conclude with another high-octane fixture in Kolkata with ATK Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC looking to consolidate their place in the top six.

With some enticing fixtures lined up, here are the key narratives to keep an eye on in the upcoming Matchweek:

Make or break Matchweek for Chennaiyin & Odisha FC

With Odisha FC dropping out of the top six after their defeat to ATK Mohun Bagan and Chennaiyin FC struggling to move up the table, both sides will be desperate to get the three points and get their playoffs ambitions back on track.

Odisha FC have won just one of their last seven games and it has been no different for Chennaiyin FC, who have secured the same amount of victories in as many games. Thomas Brdaric’s side, placed eighth in the Hero ISL standings, find themselves five points adrift of Odisha FC, who are placed one spot above them. A draw or anything less for CFC, would only widen the gap between the Marina Machans and the top six.

“This is a must-win fixture for both sides and they have to pick up the three points,” said Hero ISL commentator and expert Darren Caldeira.

“Chennaiyin FC over the last couple of games have played some decent football, but have not managed to turn those losses into draws and draws into wins. On the other hand, Odisha FC have now realised that every other team around them are winning games. They are still in the hunt for that top-six spot, but have to pick up those three points,” he added.  

Time for East Bengal FC to throw Jake Jervis into the mix?

East Bengal FC have been struggling for goals lately. That definitely hasn’t helped their cause with the Red & Golds now 10 points off the sixth place, having scored just 17 goals in 15 matches.

The addition of forward Jake Jervis will serve as a boost for East Bengal FC head coach Stephen Constantine, who will look to ensure a strong finish for the side in the remaining five games of the season. Jervis comes with plenty of experience under his belt, having plied his trade in the lower leagues of English football, besides playing for top-tier clubs in Turkey and Finland.

Forward Cleiton Silva has shouldered majority of the goalscoring burden for East Bengal FC, scoring nine goals in all, but the Brazilian hasn’t been able to find the net in the previous two games. With Jervis now in the scheme of things, it could provide an option for Constantine to pair his new signing alongside Silva upfront. 

“I was looking at who to bring on off the bench that could give us some spark and there wasn’t anybody. Next week, we will have Jake, so that will be a help,” said Constantine after their defeat 4-2 to FC Goa.

Clash of the titans

The most-anticipated fixture of the Matchweek will witness a clash between league leaders Mumbai City FC and second-placed Hyderabad FC at the Mumbai Football Arena. Both sides have been among the most consistent sides in the league, already sealing their passage to the playoffs. 

Hyderabad FC are seven points behind Mumbai City FC with a game in hand. And securing the three points in Mumbai would present a chance for the defending champions to close the gap on the Islanders, but anything less would only put the Shield out of their reach.

“If they (Hyderabad FC) want to get that Shield, this is that moment. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. Mumbai City FC are in a great form right now, but Hyderabad FC we know the kind of quality they have got. They can upset any side on their day,” said Caldeira. 

Beitia could provide depth to NorthEast United FC’s midfield

Having lost a couple of foreigners during the ongoing Hero ISL season, midfielder Joseba Beitia’s signing came as a welcome addition for NorthEast United FC, who have been struggling at the foot of the Hero ISL table all season. NorthEast United FC head coach Vincenzo Annese didn’t shy away from throwing Beitia straight into the starting eleven against Kerala Blasters FC, barely a few days after the Spaniard joined the squad.

But despite the defeat in Kochi, the former Hero I-League winner was one of NorthEast United FC’s most impressive players and had a fairly decent debut. Beitia drew the most fouls than any other NorthEast United FC player and registered the most touches and passes for his side, boasting an impressive passing accuracy of 91%. Fighting for pride and with four games to go, Beitia could provide the cutting edge in attack that the Highlanders have been missing all season. 

“We need this kind of personality in the middle and I think he did well (against Kerala Blasters FC). He’ll settle into the team step-by-step and game-by-game because it’s only been four days (since he arrived) and he played directly,” NorthEast United FC head coach Annese said about Beitia’s Hero ISL debut.  

Bengaluru FC’s high-flying attack face ATK Mohun Bagan test 

Bengaluru FC are peaking at the right time. A streak of four straight wins has seen them propel into the top six. The Blues have four games to go - starting with ATK Mohun Bagan (away), followed by fixtures against Kerala Blasters FC, Mumbai City FC, and FC Goa at home - four sides that are currently in the top six.  

Sivasakthi Narayanan and Roy Krishna’s blossoming partnership upfront has seen the Blues pump in 11 goals from their previous four games after netting just eight from their first 12 matches. Their last away match of the season will pit Bengaluru FC’s attack against one of the meanest defences in the league in ATK Mohun Bagan.

The Mariners have shipped 13 goals from 15 games, the second-best tally in the league besides registering a joint-highest tally of seven clean sheets. Out of the eight matches played in Kolkata, Juan Ferrando’s side have ended up winning six of those. There’s just five points separating the two sides and with Bengaluru FC trailing by five points, the Blues have the pressure on them.

“Both are breeding with form. Both are looking forward to the next and won’t be fearing the next game,” said Hero ISL expert Phil Brown.