By far two of the most intriguing semi-finals in the history of the league, Mumbai City FC and ATK-Mohun Bagan survived in the end and set up a date for the grand finale. Let us have a look at the main takeaways from the semi-finals - that consisted of four nerve-racking encounters.
Semi-final 1 - Mumbai City FC vs FC Goa
The measured approach by both sides
Apart from being excellent man managers, Juan Ferrando and Sergio Lobera come along with a vast array of tactical acumen . With the semi-final split into two legs, the blueprint to overcome the hurdle was already being formulated subconsciously for the two Spaniards. Mumbai City FC coach decided to bench Hernan Santana and field two foreigners in the striking zone in the first-leg, to take advantage of a relatively weak FC Goa defence devoid of Ivan Gonzalez’s services. Even though it was a brave move, they managed to ship in two goals to end the first-leg on equal terms. How? Juan Ferrando is an equally good mastermind in that respect.
The ‘Gaurs’ boss took advantage of Mumbai City FCs’ weak link - the side-backs - and exploited it with the fiery pace of Jorge Ortiz and Alexander Romario Jesuraj to draw occasional fouls, one ending with a penalty that gave them the lead in the first half. The second leg did see things go back to normal, with both teams playing to their strengths. In an intense battle in the midfield, no-one was convinced to give an inch away, and the cagey affair justifiably ended 0-0 after 120 minutes of play.
Mumbai City FC players show nerves of steel
With more than 210 minutes of football, excluding injury time, failing to separate both sides, the lottery was on the cards. But, even a tie-breaker, although superficially a simple one-on-one clash with the goalkeeper, takes a toll on the player for sure. It isn’t simple as it looks, or else we could have got the result from the five shots easily. With two misses in the first two shots, FC Goa were on the course of an exit, but football can be funny sometimes, with even the best falling prey to nerve-wracking moments. Three of the most experienced foreigners in the league - Hernan Santana, Hugo Boumous, and Ahmed Jahouh - missed from the spot.
The sudden-death was more of a hit-or-miss, with one flaw taking the team out of the race. With all the stalwarts already taking the kick, it was for the Indians to face the heat. That’s where the ‘Islanders’ stood out. Amey Ranawade, Mandar Rao Desai, and Rowlin Borges all struck gold, while FC Goa fell short via a Glan Martins miss. Even though it was just a miss, the difference was vast, where the actual mental strength came to play. Mumbai City FC players, with the way they’ve gone about their business this season, oozed out confidence during the shoot-out, even they knew it was only ‘one-kick that would separate them from elimination.
Sergio Lobera trumps once again
Sergio Lobera is not as animated a coach like Juan Ferrando or even Antonio Lopez Habas in that respect, taking resort to a low profile and allowing the game to do the talking. He doesn’t let the emotions take over the situation, as proved on Monday evening, where he kept calm until the deciding moments crept in. Unique as he’s always been, Lobera benched Bartholomew Ogbeche and played with two foreign centre-backs to cover the defence line, with Ahmed Jahouh acting as a cushion. But, when the game rolled on, the gaffer made swift changes - introduced Ogbeche by taking away Adama le Fondre.
Then he injected fresh legs in the form of Mandar Rao Desai and the masterstroke - sending young Phurba Lapencha with the gloves at the expense of veteran Amrinder Singh for the tie-breaker. Dissecting through naked eyes, the moves were bang-on, with the custodian making a total of two saves in the shoot-out, while Mandar Rao Desai and Bartholomew Ogbeche converted each from the spot. Lobera is a great man-manager and is well aware of his players’ capabilities and doesn’t shy away from making bold moves. In the end, it was a win well deserved over his former employers.
Semi-final 2 - ATK-Mohun Bagan vs Northeast United FC
ATK-Mohun Bagan followed their own formulated path in the opening tie even though they had to drop Carl McHugh to the central defensive position along with Pritam Kotal, to fill in for Sandesh Jhingan and the injured Tiri. Plans were executed to a near-perfect level, with only a small error resulting in the late goal from Idrissa Sylla, which allowed Northeast United FC to walk away with a point. Habas was well over the line, with him having the privilege of fielding a full-strength side in the return leg. When the side met for the second time, last Tuesday evening, the Spanish tactician blindly filled in the grooves to complete the template. It was game on.
In a typical Bagan-esque way, the team struck twice as they dominated the first half with their tried and tested players making the investments justified, leaving no chance for Northeast United FC to take any control of the occasion. While the second half was more in the balance, it was only a school-boy error from custodian Arindam Bhattacharya that allowed the Highlanders to score, while a penalty-miss from Luis Machado was the least they wanted. Master of the art, the Mariners made Northeast United FC work for the equaliser, eventually keeping the scoreline 2-1 until the final whistle.
Don’t ever write-off Roy Krishna. Ever.
There are players like Igor Angulo (14 goals this season), who can win matches by striking abilities, or ones like Hugo Boumous (7 assists) who can battle it through and present the ball on a platter, for serving. But, there isn't quite someone like Roy Krishna, who can do both with equal efficiency, having not only scored 14 goals so far this season, but also having assisted seven times, making him one of the most versatile players in the history of the Indian Super League. With no goals in the two legs of the semi-finals, it doesn’t paint the desired picture, right? But, it’s Roy Krishna, he’s going to find a way to surprise you.
For all three goals scored by ATK-Mohun Bagan in the play-offs - two by David Williams and the other by Manvir Singh - the final pass was provided by the Fijian international. It’s not that he was not close to scoring himself, but sometimes the rub of the green is not in your favour. Overall, that did not have an impact on the team, even though the former A-League star is the joint top-scorer this season. Krishna had done his job for the team - the ONLY thing that mattered. ATK-Mohun Bagan is blessed to have the services of a player like Krishna, and they should retain him for as long as possible.
Northeast United FC make most out of frugal investments
There was never an iota of doubt that Northeast United FC were the underdogs going into the semi-finals, even though they were unbeaten in the last nine matches, including six wins. That the young and energetic side coincided with Khalid Jamil’s legacy of grooming rookies into pros, made the situation perfect. He had an Aizawl FC-like situation once again in front of him, with the ultimate prize much glamorous and competitors - tougher than ever, while his counterparts being foreign imports. It was stranger tides for Jamil, but trade was the same - make the most out of the available resources.
Storming into the semi-finals with a mesmerizing turnaround, to face ATK-Mohun Bagan in the doubleheader was their ultimate test. The restriction of foreign players, injuries, suspensions, they had to do with all the hurdles, but they still managed to hold Bagan to a 1-1 draw in the first-leg, before crashing out by the end of the second-round, only after a brave fight put it by the unit. The sheer determination shown by the ‘Higlanders’ in the semi-finals was beyond imagination, even scoring a couple of goals against the best defence in the league.