Watching the ISL play-offs recently was an enjoyable experience for an altogether different reason. The outcome of the matches notwithstanding, the ability of Indian players to make their presence felt on equal terms with their foreign counterparts was a pleasant surprise.
Both Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan have in their ranks some exceptionally talented foreign players. And a few proved their ability in the penultimate rounds. Yet, for a change, a bunch of Indians played truly dominant and decisive roles in keeping their respective teams in the hunt for the knock-out trophy.
Mumbai were lucky to get past a prodigal FC Goa. That the tie reached a penalty shootout was a kind of relief for Sergio Lobera’s faltering men. But when two of their best players, Ahmed Jahouh and Hugo Boumous wasted their chances during penalties as the match moved to sudden death, the Mumbai fans were definitely on tenterhooks. In that moment, it was comforting to see local boy Rowliin Borges keep his cool and slot home the winner in the end.
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It not only helped Mumbai FC clinch a place in the final, but also proved a positive for Indian football. Once the ISL is over, Borges would be travelling to Dubai to join Igor Stimac’s national camp. The Croatian must have been delighted to find his pick not to lose his head under immense pressure. He must also be happy with Manvir Singh, fast becoming one of ATK Mohun Bagan’s trusted hit-men after Fijian Roy Krishna and Aussie attacking midfielder David Williams. Manvir, whose father was once a prominent footballer with Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB) but stopped playing after an unfortunate accident, played a key role in taking his team past a never-say-die NorthEast United FC.
Khalid Jamil had his plan A and B ready to keep Roy Krishna relatively quiet, but he perhaps didn’t account for Manvir in his blueprint. That was a mistake. The Punjab boy not only struck a brilliant goal, but walked away with the MoM trophy. Given the fact that Stimac’s list of 35 probables includes only three strikers, one of who spent just 131 minutes on the pitch in the seventh ISL, the coach’s desperation can be gauged. Manvir, of course, was used as a winger by his coach Antonio Habas throughout the season. Yet, his ability to find the target in pressure matches would certainly raise hopes in the mind of the foreign coach sitting home in Europe.
Stimac can’t be blamed for having only three strikers in his list. No ISL club played an Indian in that position for obvious reasons; so the national coach had limited options to make his choices. In the ongoing I-League, Bidyashagar Singh has hit the headline with back to back hat-tricks for TRAU is unlikely to make the cut for two reasons. First, I-League players are never considered for national duty (despite occasional assurances). Most importantly, to say the youngster is ready for the big jump would be sheer exaggeration.
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In fact, the 23-year-old’s exceptional talent could land him in an unenviable position next season. His prolific scoring ability would be enough to lure him away by an ISL club with an impressive package. He would definitely love to accept the promotion, but it could be a stumbling block to his progress too. Bidyashagar cannot expect too much game time in a position dominated by highly-paid foreigners. It is too much to ask for. At the most he could be adjusted as a winger. Given the Manipur boy’s current style of play, it is difficult to imagine him succeeding in a new position.
In the recent executive committee meeting of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), its president (whose term was over in December) Praful Patel suggested all ISL teams should play at least one Indian striker. Since the idea is highly impractical, nothing is going to change in near future and Stimac and his successors would continue to scratch their heads to find a positive goal scorer.
The Mumbai City FC versus ATK Mohun Bagan clash, a third in this season, may turn out to be an interesting battle. This is despite the fact that Mumbai doesn't have much at stake. To have the knock-out rounds after a full-fledged league is an idea that defies all logic – Mumbai City FC have already won the league and earned the Asian Champions League (ACL) spot for the next season. The additional attraction would be to bag a “double”, something that no team in the short history of ISL has achieved till date.
In contrast, those who are backing ATK Mohun Bagan will want to salvage something from the season. The club’s new management will be disappointed at missing out on the ACL spot. Winning the cup is nothing new for them – ATK had won it thrice before. Mohun Bagan fans, however, would surely call it a huge achievement; yet another major title in their already overflowing trophy-room along with impressive prize money, that too in the very first attempt in a green and maroon jersey. It would also bolster their belief in the ability to come up with some surprise results in the AFC Cup.
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On Saturday night, if Mumbai start as favourites, it isn’t because they triumphed on both occasions in the league phase or because they have the class of four foreign players. That the Mumbai City’s Indian players are currently enjoying a good form will also be the reason for them having an upper hand. At the same time, if Pritam Kotal, Sandesh Jhingan or Prabir Das can lift their game to the expected level, ATK Mohun Bagan could once again look like the invincible side that they were midway through the season.
True, when Roy Krishna, David Williams, Ahmed Jahouh or Hugo Boumous are on the pitch, it is never easy to shift attention to someone else. But then, this final will feature nine players in two teams, who have been called to the national camp and half a dozen of them could be expected to figure in Stimac’s starting line-up. If a few of them can rise to the big occasion and hog the limelight, it would be the real success story for the country’s top league.
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