Race for top-four heats up, as teams prepare for final dash

At the time of writing, any of the top five teams in the Hero ISL can still win the league shield. Any of the top six can still make it into the semifinals. There has been a wild struggle to remain relevant in the race: epitomised by the fact that the teams which are now 7th (Odisha FC) and 8th (Chennaiyin FC) were once in the running for top four; the fact that one of the most impressive sides in the league, Kerala Blasters, who once went 10 games without a loss, are still in 5th; and by the fact that the defending champions Mumbai City are four points off the summit, where two teams who have never finished in the top four, remain in delicate control.

Jamshedpur FC is one of those teams. They cannot stop grinding out the points. Owen Coyle has forged a team in his image: they are relentless, shrewd, confident, and raging for more than just a semifinal spot. The sheer desire in the squad is addictive. When Boris Singh scores and goes out injured against Chennaiyin FC, Len Doungel comes into the XI vs NorthEast United and scores the opener. When Jitendra Singh goes off injured, Mobashir Rahman enters the fray and creates the opener in his next start. It is quite spectacular how Coyle has managed to extract performances from all his players.

Earlier in the season, he spoke about the importance of managing a group and keeping everyone emotionally and mentally happy. Jamshedpur at this point, look like they’re riding a wave of squad harmony. And it helps when they have Greg Stewart who now has 18 goal contributions (10 goals and 8 assists) in 17 appearances.

He also seems to have the ball under his spell, making a mockery of many as he produces magic. To add another twist to a tale which has had as many twists as an untouched telephone cord from the 90s, he’s now suspended for the clash against Hyderabad FC. You couldn’t make this up. And it seems that their captain Peter Hartley is out injured as well. Coyle might need to fire up another furnace.

Meanwhile, Mumbai City FC and Kerala Blasters FC both won their games to play catch-up to each other. While they’ve relied on other teams to trip the other, their next game is a virtual playoff for the top four. It is being billed as the biggest game of the season: defending champions against a side desperately looking to make it back into the elite of the competition.

The Blasters have already had their best season in Hero ISL in terms of points won, but the fact that even that might not be enough to make the semis is a marker of how difficult this league is. 

Then there is ATK Mohun Bagan, who despite their last-minute heroics against the Blasters, failed to perform to a desired level against Odisha in their previous game. The Mariners, cruising mostly, have run into choppy waters with injuries (David Williams, Liston Colaco) and suspensions (Roy Krishna) piling up.

Juan Ferrando has so many stars in the side that it could leave anyone blinded with brightness when picking an XI, and he has to find his best one soon. They take on Bengaluru FC next, and the Blues still have an outside chance of making it to the top four.

Imagine a video game in which you’re running to the other end of a road while the plains around you keep shattering, testing your ability to stay on your feet and not plunge into a void. That’s what this is like. One wrong step - and it’s over. At the time of writing, this is what it is. When you read this, things might have changed.

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