Week 18 of the Indian Super League (ISL) ended with Mumbai City strengthening their grip on the League Shield, while Bengaluru FC made a strong push towards the playoffs with another victory.
Other contenders for that playoff spot, like Kerala Blasters, ATK Mohun Bagan and Odisha FC slipped in an eventful week of action.
We muse on the latest round of action as the league stage reaches its business end.
The Referees. Why always them?
In our first column this season, we'd mused that there wouldn't be a lot to talk about each week if we were to speak of every bad refereeing decision that was made in this league. This week though, the referees took centre stage. Even Chennaiyin FC head coach Thomas Brdaric, who was taking a kind view to the refereeing all season by mentioning the possibility of human error, had enough.
His side was undone by a goal that should've been ruled out for offside, then benefited from a good Odisha goal ruled out for offside, and then had a stonewall penalty denied. "Today I feel robbed," Brdaric said after Chennaiyin drew 2-2 against Odisha.
And then that Mumbai City FC v Hyderabad FC match. Nikhil Poojary decided to do a Luis Suarez (almost...) to Bipin Singh's goalbound header, he was given a yellow card when it should have been a red. Then Sanjeev Stalin took out Rohit Danu despite being the last man. The referee almost got it right, even taking the red card out of his pocket. But then, after being hounded by the Mumbai City players, he spoke to his assistant and showed Stalin just a yellow.
Poojary should be off.
Stalin shoulf be off.
- Anirudh (@AnirudhMenon89) February 4, 2023
Then on Sunday, Sandesh Jhingan decided that he'd had enough of the ISL and showed off his skills for a Prime Volleyball League contract against ATK Mohun Bagan. Not even a booking...this week, the referees went full ISL, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
Mishra v Chhangte lights up ISL judgement day
This was judgement day at the Mumbai Football Arena. The home team came out of it unscathed. Hyderabad FC need a miracle to unseat Mumbai City FC as the ISL League Shield winners for the second time in three seasons.
It finished in a 1-1 draw which was a fair result on the balance of play, but it was a battle down the Mumbai City right flank that one couldn't take their eyes off. Lallianzuala Chhangte has arguably been the player of the season so far in the ISL, while Akash Mishra has continued to build his burgeoning reputation as India's best left-back. When the two went up against each other, it was a battle to cherish.
The thing with Chhangte 2.0 is that he's not a one-trick pony anymore. He's a well-rounded winger, capable of beating full-backs on both sides. He's using his right foot a lot more, as evidenced by the move that won them the penalty that Jorge Pereyra Diaz scored.
But for every time that Chhangte seemed to get the better of Mishra, the latter came back with a tackle or a dribble of his own. Sometimes, the whole match was reduced to Mishra v Chhangte. It was a thrilling duel, which arguably finished without a winner on the day. There will be many more Mishra v Chhangte battles in the ISL, maybe even just in a month, in the final.
Bengaluru go back to Kanteerava with playoff dreams in their hands
A month ago, you'd have been excused for thinking it's impossible to see Bengaluru FC in the playoff spots this season. Now, the Blues are sixth, and are looking really, really good. Outside of the relentless Mumbai City, Bengaluru are the in-form team in the league this season and they now hold the advantage of playing their last three matches home at the Kanteerava Stadium, where they generally (before this season) don't lose.
Bengaluru, though, would love to face ATK Mohun Bagan again. Out of the 198 shots they've had in 17 games this season, 37 have come in two games against Juan Ferrando's side. Roy Krishna and Sivasakthi are developing into a fearsome partnership, there's a generous sprinkling of magic from Javi Hernandez and Rohit Kumar is a man reborn in their midfield, so things are looking up for Bengaluru.
In Kerala Blasters, Mumbai City and FC Goa, the Blues face tough opposition to round off their league-stage campaign, but if there's one thing in the ISL you wouldn't root against, it's Bengaluru at the Kanteerava. They've won 25 out of 37 home games in the ISL and have lost just six. This Bengaluru side with momentum heading into the business end of the season could well spell danger for the rest of the league.
Blasters, ATKMB and Odisha need to arrest slides
The first of those three remaining Bengaluru home games come against Kerala Blasters next Saturday, and Ivan Vukomanovic will be a concerned man, with his side heading into that game on the back of three consecutive away losses. Their latest defeat on the road came against FC Cleiton Sil... err... East Bengal.
With Marko Leskovic set to return soon, their porous defence could do with plugging. Chennaiyin FC go to Kochi on Tuesday before the Blasters' trip to Bengaluru, and that's a game Vukomanovic could do with winning to ease some pressure.
ATK Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, have just gone a bit stale. Federico Gallego's first ISL start of the season didn't go to plan - he failed to produce any of the creative excellence he's known for. Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh didn't impact the game and their goal this weekend against Bengaluru was only a late consolation through Dimitri Petratos's deflected strike. They've picked up just eight points in as many games, and somewhere, the stop-start nature of their season needs to stop if they harbour ambitions of silverware.
Odisha have picked up just five points in their last eight matches. They were outside contenders for the Shield, now they may not even be in the playoffs. Josep Gombau lamented the lack of home games this month - due to the Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar - saying that home games are imperative during bad runs of form. Well, they now have three home games in four to finish their season. What have you got, Senor Gombau?
Unlucky Chennaiyin's playoff hopes hang by a thread
The referees didn't help them this weekend, and they have got some poor decisions against them all season, but Chennaiyin FC don't seem to help themselves either. They play some good attacking football and create plenty of chances, but the fact of the matter is they haven't seen an ISL win for more than 50 days now.
Against Odisha, Chennaiyin had 17 shots to their opponents' six. They had seven shots on target and Nasser El-Khayati smashed the inside of the post, but somehow, they've not been able to earn those three points often enough.
Their home form has been abysmal, with just one win in eight games. They are not yet out, and football has seen strange things happen, but it would borderline unfathomable now if Chennaiyin were to end up in the top 6.