Panaji, Jan 31: The seventh edition of the Hero Indian Super League is approaching its business end, and the race for playoff berths is still very much open with the lower-ranked teams coming into their own and the higher-placed teams dropping points.
While Mumbai City FC and ATK Mohun Bagan have been relatively more consistent to occupy the top two spots, the other nine teams have had a capricious season so far. As we have seen over the years, the final quarter of the league stage always has plenty of drama on offer, for the tables can turn before you know it.
In fact, one doesn't have to look too far back for a reference. Last season, under Owen Coyle, Chennaiyin FC made a late surge to rise from the bottom of the table (ninth position) and finish fourth after the completion of the league stage, thereby qualifying for the playoffs. They lost the knockout final 1-3 to ATK, but their journey to the summit clash left everyone in awe.
SC East Bengal can take a leaf out of CFC's book, and who knows? Maybe a good run of form in their remaining six matches can help them climb the table and achieve what seems rather improbable at present – a top-four finish.
SCEB's maiden Hero ISL campaign so far can be split into two halves for a perceptive analysis. While their first seven matches yielded just three points (four losses and three draws), their next seven matches yielded ten.
The red-and-gold brigade played seven matches in January 2021, winning two, drawing four and losing just one. Moreover, they enjoyed a seven-match unbeaten streak which lasted from 20 December 2020 to 18 January 2021.
They signed five players during the January transfer window to bolster their squad, namely Bright Enobakhare, Raju Gaikwad, Ankit Mukherjee, Ajay Chhetri (on loan from Bengaluru FC) and Subrata Paul (on loan from Hyderabad FC).
In their first match of 2021, played on 3 January at the Tilak Maidan Stadium, SCEB squared off against Odisha FC. The match will remain special for SCEB supporters as it marked the club's maiden Hero ISL victory. Anthony Pilkington, Jacques Maghoma and Enobakhare struck a goal each to power the Red-and-Golds to a 3-1 win. OFC pulled one back in the second-half stoppage time via Danny Fox's own-goal.
On 6 January, SCEB were up against FC Goa in their ninth Hero ISL fixture and fifth 'home' game this season. Despite being reduced to ten men, after Fox received his marching orders in the 56th minute, the hosts held FCG to a 1-1 draw. Enobakhare and goalkeeper Debjit Majumder starred for SCEB in the match – the former with a world-class 80th minute goal to break the deadlock and the latter with eight saves to keep FCG's marauding frontline at bay. The Nigerian dribbled past four opposition players to net his second Hero ISL goal in as many matches. However, FCG equalised a minute later through Devendra Murgaokar. The decision to issue Fox a red card appeared contentious as his challenge was made on the ball, and his one-match suspension was later withdrawn following a proper review of the incident by the AIFF and the FSDL.
Three days later, on 9 January, SCEB clinched their second Hero ISL win by beating Bengaluru FC 1-0 at the Fatorda Stadium. Matti Steinmann scored the solitary goal in the 20th minute with a deft flick off a Narayan Das assist from the left. Majumder made five crucial saves in the match to ensure his team's second clean sheet of the season and win the Hero of the Match award.
SCEB's second phase of the campaign started with their reverse fixture against Kerala Blasters FC at the Tilak Maidan Stadium on 15 January. Playing their eleventh fixture and sixth 'home' game, SCEB managed to eke out a 1-1 stalemate, courtesy Scott Neville's last-gasp equaliser. The previous encounter between the two sides had also ended 1-1. Jordan Murray put KBFC ahead in the 64th minute with a powerful strike off a long ball whipped in by goalkeeper Albino Gomes. Just when it seemed that the Red-and-Golds would go back empty-handed, Neville leapt at the far post and nodded in a pinpoint corner from Enobakhare in the dying seconds to rescue a point. It was the Australian defender's maiden Hero ISL goal.
On 18 January, SCEB faced Chennaiyin FC in their second-leg 'away' encounter at the GMC Stadium, Bambolim. Once again, SCEB played with ten men for the majority of a match as Chhetri was given his marching orders in the 31st minute after picking up two yellow cards in the space of nine minutes. The match ended 0-0 even though both sides created a few chances. Majumder was adjudged the Hero of the Match for making six saves and helping his side register their third clean sheet.
Four days later, the Red-and-Golds hosted table-toppers Mumbai City FC in their thirteenth fixture at the Tilak Maidan Stadium. The first-leg contest between the two sides had ended in a 3-0 victory for Mumbai. SCEB suffered their first defeat in eight matches as they lost the second-leg 0-1, albeit with a far better performance compared to the first-leg. Mourtada Fall netted the winner in the 26th minute, but the hosts fought back brilliantly in the second-half and could've easily scored a couple of goals had the chances been converted. The match also marked SCEB left-back Narayan Das' 100th Hero ISL appearance as he became only the second player to reach the landmark after MCFC's Mandar Rao Desai.
SCEB played out a 1-1 draw against FC Goa in their last match of January (29.01.21) at the Fatorda Stadium. Fox equalised for them in this 'away' encounter in the 65th minute by driving home his maiden Hero ISL goal and first in nine years. This edition's top-scorer Igor Angulo had earlier sent the hosts 1-0 up in the 39th minute. FCG were reduced to ten men after skipper Edu Bedia received his second yellow card of the match in the 66th minute. However, SCEB were unable to take a lead despite dominating the second-half. Enobakhare was adjudged the Hero of the Match for creating three chances.
The Red-and-Golds are presently placed tenth on the points table with thirteen points from fourteen matches.
SCEB's remaining fixtures in Hero ISL-7 are stated below:-
• vs Bengaluru FC (H) – 2 February at the Tilak Maidan Stadium
• vs Jamshedpur FC (A) – 7 February at the Fatorda Stadium
• vs Hyderabad FC (H) – 12 February at the Tilak Maidan Stadium
• vs ATK Mohun Bagan (A) – 19 February at the Fatorda Stadium
• vs NorthEast United FC (H) – 23 February at the Fatorda Stadium
• vs Odisha FC (A) – 27 February at the GMC Stadium, Bambolim
KEY STATISTICS (AS ON 31 JANUARY), ACCORDING TO THE OFFICIAL WEBSITE OF THE HERO ISL
Club Stats: 12 goals, 3 clean sheets, 160 crosses, 5,509 passes, 52 saves, 424 tackles, 7,350 touches
Top-Rated Players (Minimum 7 Matches Played)
1. Matti Steinmann: 7.65
Matches: 12, Minutes: 1,025, Goals: 3, Assists: 2, Passes: 550, Touches: 656, Passing Accuracy: 73.27%, Shots: 9, Crosses: 3, Tackles: 40, Interceptions: 19, Clearances: 15, Blocks: 11
2. Bright Enobakhare: 7.38
Matches: 7, Minutes: 486, Goals: 2, Assists: 1, Passes: 267, Touches: 296, Passing Accuracy: 63.29%, Shots: 8, Crosses: 9, Tackles: 10, Interceptions: 4, Clearances: 0, Blocks: 1
3. Scott Neville: 7.25
Matches: 14, Minutes: 1,260, Goals: 1, Assists: 0, Passes: 649, Touches: 827, Passing Accuracy: 79.81%, Shots: 7, Crosses: 6, Tackles: 44, Interceptions: 23, Clearances: 56, Blocks: 21
4. Jacques Maghoma: 7.19
Matches: 14, Minutes: 1,173, Goals: 3, Assists: 1, Passes: 549, Touches: 649, Passing Accuracy: 69.76%, Shots: 14, Crosses: 14, Tackles: 35, Interceptions: 18, Clearances: 3, Blocks: 17
OTHER IMPORTANT FACTS
• 6 different players have scored for SCEB so far – Jacques Maghoma (3), Matti Steinmann (3), Bright Enobakhare (2), Anthony Pilkington (1), Scott Neville (1) and Danny Fox (1). Among them, Steinmann has the maximum goal contributions (3 goals + 2 assists) to his credit.
• Debjit Majumder currently tops the leaderboard for most saves made this season with 49 saves in 14 appearances.
• SCEB have committed the second least number of fouls this season (186), and are only behind Odisha FC (171).