Top and onto the AFC Champions League: Hero ISL stars laud ‘massive’ change

This season's Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) is about a lot more than the coveted title itself. Even before it's decided who takes the Hero ISL 2019-20 trophy home along with the moniker of the champions of India's premier football league, a race is already raging between ATK FC, FC Goa and Bengaluru FC to become the first team to represent India at the AFC Champions League (ACL).

With the number of teams in the 2021 edition of Asia's top club football competition being extended to 40 from the previous cap of 32, the table toppers by the end of the league phase will gain a direct entry to the continental showpiece's group stages - a first for any Indian team. Previously the Hero ISL title winner was granted a place in the AFC Cup qualifiers, the Cup competition just a tier below the Champions League.

Consequently, the will and desire by the teams and players to go beyond just securing a place in the top four in the ongoing edition is already out in the open. Three contenders - ATK, Goa and Bengaluru - are fighting tooth and nail for the honour of finishing at the summit with just a handful of matches left for the conclusion of the league phase. As things stand, Goa and ATK are favourites to claim the spot, but defending champions Bengaluru, too, harbour an outside chance of sneaking into the position after a race which is all set to go right down to the wire.

Sunil Chhetri: It's massive for Indian football

Speaking about the added motivation in the shape of an AFC Champions League slot, which has been egging players on to claim the top spot and will continue doing so in future editions, Bengaluru's captain, leader, legend, Sunil Chhetri opined, “It’s massive. We have been talking about it for a very long time, me, individually, and as a club as well. It’s a great change which has happened this year in the Hero ISL. It’s a great motivation for all the teams. Going forward it’s a great thing and I’m sure every club in the country would want to achieve this. And for me, after the 18 games, the amount of games that are going to happen in the league, the team at the top of the league deserves to get the Champions League spot.”

For Chhetri, in particular, the prize going to the eventual league toppers rather than the champions will come as a big piece of personal gratification. To recall, Chhetri topped the league table in the three previous editions of the Hero ISL (2016 with Mumbai City FC, 2017-18 and 2018-19 with Bengaluru. Unfortunately, the first two times, Chhetri’s team failed to take the title and thereby missed out on the AFC spot. This, in fact, prompted Chhetri to take to social media back in November 2018 to appeal that the league toppers be granted the Asian slot, which he perceived to be the just reward considering the consistency required to end up at the summit.

Having seen his appeal come to fruition two years later, and with a huge upgrade in tow, Chhetri stated, “I’m very happy because this is the right thing. Every football fan can agree to that. When you talk about four teams reaching the semi-finals, it might not always be that the best team which will be crowned as champions. Due to the competition, a team that might have narrowly qualified as the fourth placed team also has an equal amount of probability to win the trophy. But when we give it to the league toppers, then what it states is that the club that has played well throughout the season gets the prize for it. It is difficult right now the way it is, but I would love to see my club getting the spot. I’m sure the other three teams will definitely try their best to get there as well.”

Gurpreet: Chance to test ourselves against the best

Chhetri’s Bengaluru and India teammate Gurpreet Singh Sandhu echoed the ace striker’s thoughts and noted, “It definitely is a massive deal for Indian football. For Indian clubs to get a chance to compete against the best in the world. As a professional the biggest stages are the ones you want to compete on and Indian clubs and footballers now have that chance.”

Roy Krishna and Prabir Das: It’s a big motivation

Similar thoughts have come in from the ATK and Goa camps as well. ATK’s Fijian striker Roy Krishna, who has set the Hero ISL stage alight after arriving from Australia, also hinted that the development will help strengthen the Hero ISL’s lure for top foreign talents. “It's a major motivation for me personally as well as the team as it is pushing us to go beyond our comfort zone and take on every match as if it’s the final. We are focused on topping the table and making a huge impact not only in the Hero ISL but also in Indian football as a whole. I believe that any team who tops the table will have an impact in the ACL. I would love to be part of that.”

Krishna’s ATK colleague Prabir Das added, “As a player, it's a big motivation to work hard and play consistently so we can play in the ACL and compete at a higher level. It has a positive impact for me personally as well as on Indian football. It's a great opportunity and experience for Indian players to play in Asia’s top competition.”

Mandar Rao Dessai: Representing India in ACL huge

For FC Goa club captain Mandar Rao Dessai, finishing top represents the avenue to earn the honour of representing the country on Asia’s biggest stage in club football. “I think it's a great opportunity for the clubs that come first to represent India in the ACL group stage. This is the first time a team goes directly into the group stage and I think it's very important for the team to perform in these stages because the level is really good. I think it's more competitive.”

“It will obviously be difficult, but I think it'll give more experience to our players. Obviously, everyone wants to win the Hero ISL trophy but leaving that aside, I think it's very important to finish on top of the table so that you can go and represent India in the ACL,” he added, addressing the challenge ahead.

Ferran Corominas: Will help Indian football improve

Fighting shoulder to shoulder with Mandar in order to achieve the objective will be Hero ISL’s all-time top scorer Ferran Corominas. The ace Spaniard pitched in with his own views and remarked, “For us it's very important to finish in the first position. For the club, for the players and for the fans also. For Indian football, it's very important to show the level of the league. The ACL is one level higher. I think this is an important step to help Indian football improve.”

With only a handful of matches left till the league phase concludes, the race for the top spot is still too close to call and fans will be eager to see who comes out on top and etches their name in Indian football history when the dust finally settles.

Till then, however, you can simulate the different scenarios and see how the table turns out with the Hero ISL Standings Predictor.

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