The long and gruelling Indian Super League (ISL) 2023-24 league stage has drawn to a close, with Mohun Bagan Super Giant clinching the League Shield for the first time after a dramatic showdown against defending League Shield winners Mumbai City FC at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan.

After falling short of the League Shield in previous seasons, the Mariners made sure they proved their grit and determination this time and held their nerve until the final game to get their hands on glory.

There was drama for the playoff spots as well until the final Matchweek of the league stage, and a late surge up the table saw Chennaiyin FC sealing the sixth spot and securing a playoff qualification after three seasons.

With the addition of the 12th team, the league witnessed an amplified level of drama and entertainment, resulting in 362 goals scored in 132 league matches, averaging 2.74 goals per match.

While there were numerous talking points from the recently concluded league stages, let's first delve into the key highlights before heading into the playoffs.

Mohun Bagan Super Giant means serious business

Antonio Lopez Habas has truly worked wonders since stepping in for Juan Ferrando mid-season, instilling bravery, strength, and hunger in the team.

The Mariners suffered a shocking slump in form during the middle of the season, enduring three consecutive league losses following their exit from the AFC Cup in the group stage. However, the management remained composed and decisive in replacing their previous champion coach, Ferrando, who had guided them to victory in the ISL Cup last season and the Durand Cup earlier this season.

Read: Mohun Bagan SG are ISL champions: From nearly men to habitual winners
Read: Mohun Bagan SG are ISL champions: The glory, the records and the heroes

Mohun Bagan SG brought back Habas to helm the coaching duties, and the Spaniard wasted no time in steering them back to success. They dropped just seven points out of a possible 36 in the latter half of the season, ultimately clinching their first League Shield.

Despite the absence of Hugo Boumous they brought back Joni Kauko and the decision paid off handsomely for the Kolkata side with Kauko boosting their midfield strength.

Islanders maintain a positive outlook despite a late setback

The Islanders came agonisingly close to clinching their third League Shield. However, their hopes were dashed with a 2-1 defeat to eventual winners Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the final game of the league stage.

Despite undergoing a managerial change, losing key players, and grappling with injuries to several squad members, the Islanders gave their all in their quest to defend the League Shield. However, they were ultimately undone by a brilliant Mohun Bagan Super Giant side.

Under Petr Kratky's leadership, the team enjoyed a nine-match unbeaten run before succumbing to defeat in the final league game. Regardless of the outcome of that fateful night, they can take pride in their achievements this season, overcoming numerous setbacks along the way.

Odisha FC turn Kalinga into a Fortress!

The Kalinga Warriors have truly lived up to their name, embodying the spirit of warriors every time they've stepped onto their home turf this season. Under Sergio Lobera's guidance, Odisha FC displayed fearless football, culminating in a strong fourth-place finish in the table.

They remained unbeaten in each of their 11 matches at the Kalinga Stadium, with just three draws, turning their home turf into a fortress. They became just the third side to remain unbeaten at home in the league phase of any single ISL season, following Bengaluru FC (2018/19) and Delhi Dynamos (2016). With an impressive 23 out of 35 goals scored at home and only nine conceded, along with four clean sheets during the league stage, they've demonstrated their dominance on their own turf.

Last season, Odisha FC showed significant growth by securing a playoff berth and winning the Super Cup. Under Lobera's continued leadership this season, their progress has been evident across various fronts - from their league performance to reaching the Super Cup final once again, and even progressing to the knockout rounds of the AFC Cup in their first appearance. 

Owen Coyle does it again!

After Coyle's departure in 2020, which was also the last time they made it to the playoffs, Chennaiyin FC brought in three different coaches: Csaba Laszlo, Bozidar Bandovic, and Thomas Brdaric, but none of these head coaches managed to secure a spot in the playoffs.

When Coyle was re-appointed prior to the season, he had the task of taking the side back to the top half of the ISL table. They initially struggled, and the Scotsman himself took some time to integrate with his new squad and bring out the best in the players.

Finally, a late surge in the business end of the season saw Chennaiyin FC stage three consecutive comeback wins. The Marina Machans also grabbed headlines by securing late wins against formidable sides like Odisha FC and Mohun Bagan SG, which were key to securing them a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons.

Now, Coyle's focus shifts to the playoffs, aiming for the club to take the next step and vie for their third ISL Cup to add to their trophy cabinet.

Magic Madih - the Silver Lining in Punjab FC’s debut season

The Frenchman couldn't have imagined a better debut season in India when he joined the Shers in the summer.

Both Punjab FC and Talal took time to adapt to the new league, but as the season progressed, they settled in and competed neck-and-neck with every opponent. Punjab FC secured an eighth-place finish, two points behind sixth-placed Chennaiyin FC, but it was a memorable season for the French playmaker on an individual level.

The 26-year-old became only the second player in the league's history to record 10 assists in their debut season, matching Greg Stewart’s tally for Jamshedpur FC in the 2021-22 campaign.

He demonstrated his ability to cover all areas of the pitch and served as the linchpin of every attacking movement for the side. In addition to his double-digit assist tally, he also scored six goals and created the most chances (57) in the league stage.

NorthEast United FC make strides under Juan Pedro Benali

The Highlanders endured a forgettable season last year, finishing at the bottom of the table with just five points from 20 matches, marking the lowest tally in the history of the ISL. However, head coach Juan Pedro Benali, in his debut season in the league, took NorthEast United FC to new heights, lifting the side up the table this season, although they narrowly missed out on securing a playoff berth. NorthEast United FC ultimately finished seventh with 26 points, trailing sixth-placed Chennaiyin FC by just one point.

Under Benali's guidance, the team has showcased an attractive brand of attacking football, netting 30 goals in 22 matches. The side has already made positive moves by securing the head coach's services along with key players like Michel Zabaco, Nestor Albiach, and Mohammed Ali Bemammer. Clearly, NorthEast United FC are not content to stop here and will continue to build on their progress for the next season.