On Wednesday, Kerala Blasters FC inched a step closer to securing a top four spot by defeating Mumbai City FC in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) 2021-22 season. The victory also catapulted Kerala Blasters FC into the top four – a point ahead of the Islanders, with both teams having just a solitary fixture left this season.

That result, coupled with Bengaluru FC and Odisha FC’s inability to make a fist of the qualification race means that only three teams can realistically qualify for the two remaining top four slots.

Hyderabad FC and Jamshedpur FC have already enrolled themselves for the semi-finals. ATK Mohun Bagan aren’t very far behind but there is still a mathematical possibility that they can be eliminated.

So, with ATK Mohun Bagan, Kerala Blasters FC, and Mumbai City FC fighting tooth and nail for the top four, the time is perhaps ripe to look at the different qualification scenarios and what each team might have to do to move clear of the chasing pack.

ATK Mohun Bagan – 34 points from 18 matches (placed 3rd on the table)

Upcoming fixtures – Chennaiyin FC and Jamshedpur FC

The blueprint for ATK Mohun Bagan is quite simple. They need just one point from the two fixtures that remain to ensure qualification. If they get one draw from the two matches left, they would propel themselves to 35 points – a tally that only Kerala Blasters FC will be able to overhaul.

Things, though, could get a little tricky if the Mariners taste defeat against Chennaiyin FC and Jamshedpur FC (more on that later). As things stand, that looks very unlikely but stranger things have happened in the Hero ISL and ATK Mohun Bagan would understand the importance of staying on their guard throughout.

Kerala Blasters FC – 33 points from 19 matches (placed 4th on the table)

Upcoming fixture – FC Goa

Much like the Mariners, Kerala Blasters FC’s brief is pretty clear. Three points will steer them towards safety and help them clinch that elusive semi-final berth. It might not be easy against an FC Goa outfit looking to spoil their party but the Tuskers at least know what they need to do exactly.

They could also qualify with a draw – something made possible because of their victory against the Islanders. In a nutshell, Kerala Blasters FC need to avoid defeat. If they are able to do so, a semi-final appearance may finally be on the cards.

Mumbai City FC – 31 points from 19 matches (placed 5th on the table)

Upcoming fixture – Hyderabad FC

Before Wednesday, Mumbai City FC were in pole position to barge into the top four. Their destiny was still in their own hands and they had an opportunity to blow Kerala Blasters FC out of the water too. In fact, they just needed a victory against the Tuskers to ensure that they and the Mariners went through.

Now, though, they are anxiously waiting for a Kerala Blasters FC capitulation against FC Goa. And, of course, a victory in their final fixture against Hyderabad FC. The Islanders, to spell it out bluntly, can’t qualify if they fail to beat Manuel Marquez’s men.

Hero ISL 2021-22 Standings

What happens if all three teams are stuck at 34 points?

So, this is where it gets a little complicated. Kerala Blasters FC, by virtue of their triumph against the Islanders, have opened up a possibility where all three teams finish with 34 points after the league stages.

At the moment, it seems a little far-fetched that such a situation will materialize, considering how good ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters FC have been lately but it is one that will surely linger in the back of their minds.

For these teams to end up with 34 points, the following results will have to take place –

  1. ATK Mohun Bagan lose both their games
  2. Kerala Blasters FC draw against FC Goa
  3. Mumbai City FC win against Hyderabad FC

If such a scenario does come to fruition, the head-to-head record will be taken into account. Under ordinary circumstances, that would provide a definitive answer. But with Kerala Blasters FC enjoying a superior head-to-head against Mumbai City FC, the Islanders having bettered the Mariners, and ATKMB having outwitted Kerala Blasters FC, it might not be as easy.

In this case, a mini-table, comprising the head-to-head matches against each other will be created. Basically, it would be a table where the Islanders’ results in the four matches against ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters FC would be pitted against the corresponding results of the other teams.

All the tallies will be out of four games, considering each team has played the other twice this season.

Here, too, the Islanders would lose out because they have only accumulated 4 points from these four games (all four against ATK Mohun Bagan). The Mariners, on the other hand, have five points (one against Mumbai City FC and four against Kerala Blasters FC).

The Tuskers, meanwhile, have garnered seven points from the four fixtures (six against Mumbai City FC and one against ATKMB) they have played against the Islanders and the Mariners, meaning that if this situation did materialize, they would qualify as the third-placed team and face the second-placed side in the semi-finals.

A lot of it does seem conjecture at present, and chances are that ATK Mohun Bagan will render these calculations moot by pinching at least one point from the games they have left this season.

Mumbai City FC, though, are most certainly clutching at straws and would be hoping that Kerala Blasters FC lose against FC Goa, for that provides them with the most straightforward avenue into the semi-final. Remember, a two-way tie with Kerala Blasters FC at 34 points would result in the latter going through because of a superior head-to-head record.

However, the Islanders can also qualify if the Mariners lose both their games, get marooned on 34 points and Kerala Blasters FC win their last encounter. In that case, the defending champions, courtesy of the 4 points accumulated against ATK Mohun Bagan in this campaign, will overtake them in the points table.  

Thus, it seems that this qualification race is ATK Mohun Bagan and Kerala Blasters FC’s to lose. They have points in their kitty and they have a better head-to-head record (in a three-way tie), if it were to come to that.  

But in a league as competitive and as topsy-turvy as the Hero ISL, you can never say never. And, until each team plays 20 matches, drama will not be at a premium.