HT Kick Off: ISL's agonising 17-day break and AIFF's massive own goal | Football News - Hindustan Times

HT Kick Off: ISL's agonising 17-day break and AIFF's massive own goal

Mar 15, 2024 09:24 AM IST

If the race to the top in Indian Super League is exciting, so is the fight for the remaining places in the top six.

Kerala Blasters will spend an agonising 17 days waiting for ISL to resume after its final break of the season. Interrupted repeatedly because of national team commitments, ISL10 stopped on Thursday with Mumbai City FC leading the standings by virtue of a better goal difference over Mohun Bagan Super Giant who have a game in hand.

Mohun Bagan Super Giant’s Dimitri Petratos celebrates after scoring from a penalty against East Bengal at Salt Lake stadium on Sunday (Source: ISL Media)
Mohun Bagan Super Giant’s Dimitri Petratos celebrates after scoring from a penalty against East Bengal at Salt Lake stadium on Sunday (Source: ISL Media)

Mohun Bagan and Mumbai City look to have pulled away in the battle for the shield as the league phase hits the homestretch though Odisha FC and FC Goa are also in with a chance. Mohun Bagan end against Mumbai City, who went into the break riding a Vikram Pratap Singh hattrick (the sixth Indian in ISL history and the second youngest) to beat NorthEast United 4-1, and on that game could hinge who takes the 6 crore prize and a berth in 2024-25 Asian Champions League 2. Mumbai City are also expected to get full points and a 3-0 win margin against Jamshedpur FC after the latter botched up a 1-1 draw.

Habas the conqueror

Since the return of Antonio Lopez Habas, the most successful coach in ISL’s short history, Mohun Bagan have been transformed. No longer is this the team that lost three in a row in December and exited the AFC Cup, the double whammy costing Juan Ferrando the job. “He (Habas) has brought energy. We missed that,” said Aramando Sadiku. Check out Sadiku’s volley against Kerala Blasters here.

Habas has lost an ISL title and shield to Mumbai City before a heavy defeat in 2021 accelerated his ouster. He will want to change that this time. “I hate losing,” he said after the 4-3 win against Kerala Blasters.

In seven games under Habas, Mohun Bagan have won six and drew against Odisha FC. Including the thrilling win against Kerala Blasters, they have scored 15 goals conceding eight. With Jason Cummings (9 goals), Dimitri Petratos (8) and Sadiku (7), Mohun Bagan are only team with three players in the top-10 scorers’ list. The Cummings-Habas-Petratos headlock in Kochi on Wednesday told its own story.

Equally transformational has been the return of Joni Kauko. To use Kauko, Mohun Bagan deregistered Hugo Boumous, who would walk into any ISL side, but did not release the playmaker. The midfield general has been instrumental in adding heft to the attack and solidity to the defence. The magic word for Habas is “balance” and Kauko has provided that. Back after over one year following an ACL injury, Kauko was the kind of player Mohun Bagan missed under Ferrando especially after Carl McHugh left.

Foreigners make a lot of difference in ISL, East Bengal coach Carles Cuadrat said before the 1-3 defeat in the Kolkata derby. Those in Mohun Bagan’s frontline have proved that. Add to that Kauko being the most influential midfielder since Greg Stewart, the form of their India regulars led by the always-industrious Manvir Singh and it is not difficult to understand why Mohun Bagan have been intimidating. Under Habas, Mohun Bagan have also been more direct. Ferrando sought control through possession; Habas doesn’t mind the opposition having the ball.

Keeping Boumous in hibernation is one proof of Mohun Bagan’s financial muscle. Introducing Anirudh Thapa as a late substitute, getting Liston Colaco on even later in Kerala are some of the others.

If the race to the top is exciting, so is the fight for the remaining two places in the top six. Every team but Hyderabad FC, who stunned Chennaiyin FC to notch up their first win, can make it though Kerala Blasters are best placed to seal one of the spots. They need three points from three games. Promoted from I-League this term, Punjab FC could make it too. That would give runaway 2023-24 I-League leaders Mohammedan Sporting hope.

The buzz around ISL needs to be tempered by Odisha FC’s ouster from AFC Cup. Inter-zonal semi-finals have been the deepest ISL teams have gone in Asia’s second-tier competition. That is two rounds removed from Bengaluru FC playing the final in 2016. Or Dempo and East Bengal qualifying for semi-finals before ISL.

AFC seeks evidence

Happenings in AIFF too have dampened exciting times on the pitch. Soon after AIFF gave president Kalyan Chaubey a clean chit, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) stepped in. Asia’s apex body has asked for proof from AIFF’s former legal head who has made a string of allegations against Chaubey.

This followed the federation not being able to keep the president’s proimse. Chaubey had assured Igor Stimac that AIFF would arrange for a chartered flight to Abha in Saudi Arabia and on March 8, the federation issued a media release saying that. Yet, the squad flew in separate flights from New Delhi and Goa. That means some players will reach Abha on Saturday and the full squad missing a training session. Exactly why Stimac had sought – and thought he had got – the president’s buy-in on this. “Wouldn’t it have been better had the AIFF president told Stimac he would discuss it with the executive committee to see if this was doable rather than scoring an own-goal,” said an AIFF executive committee member.

This is not the first time Chaubey has gone public with a commitment his federation did not honour. Last September, AIFF issued a media release announcing a partnership with Indigo. When AIFF’s former legal head questioned the deal , Chaubey said it hadn’t been signed.

The following article is an excerpt from this week's edition of HT Kick Off. Subscribe here.

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