Hero ISL Chapter 7: Exploring uncharted territory

Biosecure bubbles, games behind closed doors, new champions, there are many reasons why the seventh edition of the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) has gone down in history as one of the most unique ones.

Every stakeholder of the Hero ISL was exposed to an entirely new experience, right from the players living and training in bio-secure bubbles, to viewers watching the game from home and the organizers ensuring the safety of the players and the staff.

Regardless of the restrictions that COVID-19 imposed on the league, the intensity, competitiveness, and excitement surrounding the Hero ISL remained consistent. Here is a glimpse into the 2020-21 season:

ATK Mohun Bagan

ATK Mohun Bagan had a squad full of talented players and a distinguished manager in Antonio Habas in the 2020-21 season. They were the best in the league defensively, conceding just 15 goals in their 20 games. Manvir Singh had a brilliant season, wreaking havoc on the right flank as he scored six goals and assisted another three.

The Mariners were in contention for the AFC Asian Champions League spot for the entire season, and held a slim advantage over their competitors Mumbai City FC going into the last round of fixtures, but were undone by the Islanders who stole the top spot in the table.

Habas’ men were put to the test against a resolute Northeast United FC in the semi-finals, as they qualified after winning the second tie 2-1, after settling for a 1-1 draw in the first leg. ATK Mohun Bagan squared off against the Islanders in the finals, too, and were unfortunate to come out on the losing side, owing to a late Bipin Singh goal.

Bengaluru FC

The Blues had a rocky season in 2020-21, failing to fire on all cylinders like previous seasons. Bengaluru FC parted ways with manager Carles Cuadrat midway through the season, after a string of disappointing results. Although they started strongly, resisting defeat in the first six games, they experienced a mid-season slump of going winless for eight fixtures.

Ashique Kuruniyan was electric in the left-back position for Bengaluru FC, but a facial injury kept him sidelined for over 10 games, which hampered his team’s performances. Sunil Chhetri was the club’s top scorer with eight goals. The Blues settled for a 7th place finish at the end of the season and missed out on the Hero ISL semi-finals for the first time ever since they joined the competition.

Chennaiyin FC

Chennaiyin FC roped in Csaba Laszlo as their head coach ahead of the 2020-21 season. The two-time Hero ISL champions had an underwhelming season, as they scored just 17 goals, which was the lowest in the league. Their woes upfront marred their defensive solidity, as the side played out 11 draws, which was the joint-highest in the season.

Deepak Tangri was an industrious presence in midfield, making 46 tackles and 21 interceptions. The Marina Machans missed out on Rafael Crivellaro’s creativity, as an injury forced him to be sidelined for more than half of the season. Anirudh Thapa, too, had injury issues, and all of these factors led to Chennaiyin FC finishing in 8th place.

FC Goa

The Gaurs experienced a major overhaul in the off-season, as they had to tackle the departure of their head coach Sergio Lobera, along with the exit of key players like Ahmed Jahouh, Mourtada Fall, Hugo Boumous, and Mandar Rao Desai. Spaniard Juan Ferrando was tasked with overseeing the rebuild, and the manager led a successful campaign for FC Goa, as the side qualified for their semi-finals for the sixth time in their history, finishing fourth in the regular season.

FC Goa went unbeaten for 13 games in the latter half of the season, and the trend continued even in the semi-finals, as they drew against Mumbai City FC in the first leg. The second semi-final fixture, too, ended without a winner at the end of 120 minutes. But the Islanders emerged victorious after a nail-biting penalty shootout.

Hyderabad FC

Hyderabad FC had an uphill battle in 2020-21, as they had to brush aside their underwhelming performances of the previous season. Head coach Manolo Marquez masterminded a complete turnaround for the club, as his side looked favourites to grab a top four spot. The Nizams were boosted by the fine displays of their youngsters like Akash Mishra, Asish Rai, and Liston Colaco, among others.

Marquez’s team could’ve robbed FC Goa off their semi-final spot in their last fixture, but a 0-0 draw against them meant that Hyderabad FC had to settle for a fifth-place finish in the standings. They accumulated 11 draws over the course of the season, which was the joint-highest in the league, and possibly affected their prospects of a top-four finish.

Jamshedpur FC

Owen Coyle was given the responsibility of powering the Red Miners to their first-ever semi-finals, after his exploits with Chennaiyin FC in the 2019-20 season. The club also acquired impressive foreign personnel in Stephen Eze, Peter Hartley, and former Hero ISL Golden Boot winner Nerijus Valskis.  Although the defensive duo of Hartley and Eze was among the best in the league, Jamshedpur FC struggled in the final third, as they were the second lowest-scoring team in the league with 21 goals.

The side kept 8 clean sheets, and conceded just 22 goals in their 20 games. The Red Miners finished four points adrift of a semi-final spot, as they won seven games, drew six games and lost another seven.

Kerala Blasters FC

Kerala Blasters FC appointed Kibu Vicuna as their head coach for the 2020-21 season. They had a sloppy start to the campaign, being unable to secure a win in their first six games. Jordan Murray’s introduction to the starting lineup added bite to the Blasters’ attack and the Australian striker bagged seven goals in the entire season.

They struggled defensively, letting in 36 goals, even with the presence of imposing figures like Costa Nhamoinesu and Bakary Koné in their backline. The club’s quest to qualify for their third semi-final remained unfulfilled, as they could only manage 17 points from 20 games, finishing in 10th place.

Mumbai City FC

Having partnered up with City Football group prior to the start of the season, the Islanders were aiming for the stars in the seventh edition of the Hero ISL. Sergio Lobera was placed at the helm of affairs by the club, and a host of players joined the club ahead of the new campaign. Mumbai City FC were a force to be reckoned with throughout the season, with Lobera’s dominant gameplay and a talented group of players, as they went on a 12 game unbeaten run.

Mumbai City FC clinched the League Winners’ Shield and secured qualification to the AFC Champions League with a 2-0 win in their last league fixture against ATK Mohun Bagan. The drama followed the Islanders through their semi-final and final matches too, as they held their nerve to win a penalty shootout against FC Goa in the semi-finals, and fired in a late winner in the final against ATK Mohun Bagan, to lift their first-ever Hero ISL trophy.

NorthEast United FC

Gerard Nus put pen to paper for NorthEast United FC ahead of the 2020-21 season, being assigned the head coach role. The resolute and disciplined system that Nus instilled, got him great results, as his side won 12 points from their first six games. The Spaniard parted ways with the club after just 11 games in charge, and Khalid Jamil stepped in as the interim coach.

Jamil had an exemplary record in the latter half of the season, winning six games and drawing another three, maintaining an undefeated record, which culminated in a top-four finish. The Highlanders fought valiantly against ATK Mohun Bagan in the semi-finals but missed out on a place in the finals, on aggregate.

Odisha FC

Odisha FC entered their second season in the Hero ISL with several changes in personnel, right from the acquisition of Stuart Baxter as head coach to the signings of Steven Taylor, Diego Mauricio, and Marcelinho, among others. The Bhubaneshwar-based outfit had a sluggish start to their campaign, registering their first win after eight games. Steven Dias took control of the side after Stuart Baxter’s exit in the latter half of the season.

Diego Mauricio was a constant threat in attack, but the lack of support up front and defensive instability meant that the Juggernauts found it extremely challenging to find a winning combination in the seventh edition. The side finished 11th in the table, with two wins and 12 points from their 20 games.

SC East Bengal

The century-old club made a foray into the Hero ISL in the 2020-21 season under Liverpool legend and head coach Robbie Fowler. The Red and Gold Brigade were unfortunate to have a shorter pre-season in comparison to their competitors, but Fowler’s side put up spirited displays in their initial few games.

SC East Bengal had to wait until their eighth game to secure their first win but later went on to stay unbeaten for seven games in the league. They lacked a clinical presence in the final third, and that cost them crucial points in several games. With three wins, eight draws, and nine losses after 20 games, they finished ninth in the league with 17 points.

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