The headline point of the past week in the ISL has come from off the field: the recent flurry of social media posts by players and staff members highlighting just how hard, how mentally draining, this season has been. Sunil Chhetri said he was available for players across teams if they need him, to forget football and just have a chat. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu has always wanted everyone to just talk more. Victor Mongil says they are not "able to enjoy how beautiful football is." Edu Bedia suggested that most players can't wait for the season to end, as harsh and unpleasant as that may sound. Ivan Vukomanovic said football is the last thing on their minds. Owen Coyle spoke about how ensuring no injuries happen is the first priority.
These are big names. People who have been in football for a long time, who know the business, the expectations, the pressure. And it's all a new, disconcerting experience for them all.
The outbreak of COVID-19 among the players and staff at various ISL teams has meant no one is really physically or mentally at 100%. This past week, three matches got postponed: ATK Mohun Bagan vs Bengaluru FC, Kerala Blasters vs Mumbai City FC, Hyderabad vs Jamshedpur. Like Jamshedpur, everyone from Bagan, Bengaluru and Blasters were confined to their hotel rooms for days ahead of their match. Ahead of Tuesday's match, both Odisha and NorthEast United cancelled their pre-match pressers. Till the lineups were announced, no one had been able to say with surety that the match would go ahead.
It's hard to analyse an ISL match - any sport, really - these days. The player who made an error at a vital moment may have spent the past six days confined to his own room. The XI on the field may never have trained together in the set-up they're playing in. Clubs have had to wait till the last hour to find out whether appeals for postponement have been accepted or not. Coaches may have had to draw up their game plans a couple of hours before the match.
Mistakes will happen, intensity will drop. It's almost impossible to take what you see on the pitch as a reasonable indicator of the team's, or a player's, quality.
With that in mind, we take a look at the four matches that did happen last week:
Ishan Pandita, super sub again
SC East Bengal did what SC East Bengal under Renedy Singh have been doing. Sit deep, hold their positions well, venture out rarely. It was a supreme effort in discipline, especially considering they had no foreign players available for selection and just six subs on the bench. It almost worked too -- till Ishan Pandita came to the party.
Pandita had taken the ISL by storm with his impact substitute appearances for FC Goa at the start of the last season but had gradually faded. He didn't play much for Jamshedpur at the beginning of this, but he's now getting his mojo. It's his second late winner in as many matches, and Coyle will be ever more confident of his giving his super sub a few more minutes as the season progresses.
Kerala Blasters continue to be very good
Before the Blasters went into isolation, they cemented their top spot with a dominant 2-0 win over Odisha. The latter had had to deal with a COVID scare at the time, but Vukomanovic's men did what they had to, and in some style. There were many positives to be taken from the win, not the least the identity of the goalscorers - Nishu Kumar and Harmanjot Khabra, the team's fullbacks. One returning from serious injury and a consequent dip in form, the other almost written off before the season started. The team played arguably their best football in that first half on Wednesday, pinging first time passes, creating neat little patterns and throwing in some cheeky flicks and tricks.
What must make the long-suffering Blasters fan base most happy, though, is that this team plays its football with smiles on their faces, and demonstrates a visible sense of togetherness. It's a good time to be clad in yellow right now.
Chennaiyin remain solid, but can they be more?
Going into Chennaiyin vs Hyderabad, the biggest question had been how the latter would cope without the suspended Bart Ogbeche. Javier Siverio proved he could lead the line just as well from the start as he could off the bench, with a well taken goal. Hyderabad dominated most of the game, bossing possession and outshooting their opponents 25 to 11 (10 to 3 for shots on goal).
Chennaiyin showed glimpses of attacking potential, especially when Rahim Ali came on late in the game, but for the most part they remain dependent on the dynamism of Anirudh Thapa to create something. Their defensive solidity may be their strength, but they continue to be the league's lowest scorers - a mere 10 in 11 matches. It's a scoring rate that's simply not sustainable, and they will need January signing Nerijus Valskis to find the kind of form that propelled them to the ISL final in 2019-20.
FC Goa and NorthEast United rue missed opportunity
NorthEast United are tenth with 9 points in 11. FC Goa are eighth with 13 in 11. In a match that was unusual in that it was Indian coach vs Indian coach, neither Khalid Jamil nor Derrick Pereira will be happy with the point they took from it. Goa, affected by COVID, had had to revise their game plan at the last minute, but stuck to the three-at-the-back formation that has lent them defensive solidity after the abrupt exit of Juan Ferrando. They were the better side for most of the match, and although they had a goal controversially ruled out, they will rue the fact that they were unable to translate a 25 v 11 shots and 68% v 32% possession advantage into three points.
NorthEast, meanwhile, may regret not going full tilt at a weakened Goa core that didn't have either Ivan Gonzalez or Edu Bedia. Especially if the injury Deshorn Brown seemed to pick up toward the end is a serious one.