The league stage of the seventh Indian Super League season is over, and boy, has it been fun. We've seen the traditional bits -- the sensational goals, the slapstick defending, and the rubbish refereeing -- but we've also seen well-coached sides perform at a level of consistency that made it easier on the eyes than it has been in the recent past. That there was something at stake for four teams on the last day of the season says it all.
We take a look at just how each team has done over the course of this unique, bio-bubbled season.
Mumbai City FC (A+)
The galacticos have delivered. Sergio Lobera has shown, once again, that he's arguably the best coach in the land. The City Football Group have one more league in the bag.
After starting the season in fifth gear, they suffered a dip in form -- arrogance and complacency creeping in -- but they pulled it together just when it mattered. From goalkeeper Amrinder Singh to striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, they performed superbly to a man in the big games and that collective effort has deservedly won them a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League.
ATK Mohun Bagan (B+)
'A 1-0 Roy Krishna special'. For the vast majority of the season, no phrase defined ATK Mohun Bagan quite like that. As with any Antonio Habas team, they were defensively near-impregnable (they conceded three fewer than the next stingiest defence) and spent match after match grinding out results on the back of Krishna's individual attacking genius. They even got in Marcelinho and let their hair down for a period toward the end of the season.
Until the last week happened. Leading Mumbai by five points, they just got overwhelmed and forgot their natural game. They were lucky to come away with a point against a vastly-inferior-on-paper side that played 90 minutes with 10 men, and they were bossed by their direct rivals on the final day. For all their success that went before this, that last-week choke will define Bagan's season.
NorthEast United FC (A+)
When ISL 2020-21 began, no one saw NorthEast competing for a place in the playoffs. Then the season started and Gerard Nus Casanova allowed them to hope -- his solid, defense-first approach causing problems for opposition and letting NorthEast steady themselves mid-table. Then the management reverted to type and (from the outside-in) inexplicably sacked their eighth manager in seven seasons. Hopes crashed.
Then came Khalid Jamil. Banished to the youth teams at the start of the season, the 'interim' coach has gone on an unbeaten run that saw them win six and draw three en route to comfortably qualifying for the playoffs. It was a stunning coaching effort that saw Jamil get the very best out of his squad. Now, NorthEast dream.
FC Goa (B+)
The Goa team that finished fourth to qualify for the sixth playoffs in seven years, bore little resemblance to the one that romped home to the top spot last season. After letting Lobera go, they spent a summer being picked apart and slowly rebuilding.
Juan Ferrando came in and did just about enough to ensure they didn't miss the playoffs. They repeatedly clawed back deficits and scored multiple injury-time equalisers and winners, and that points to a team that's got each other's back.
Only time, though, and a lot more sessions together for the squad (including the manager) will tell if the Goa management made the right call with Lobera last season..
Hyderabad FC (A-)
The season's most heartwarming story. Written off, injury-hit, with a squad full of young untested Indian kids and a coach who left before the season began, Hyderabad FC nearly pulled off a miracle.
Credit goes to the management that made all the right calls in the preseason, and the manager who got the absolute best out of his team week-in and week-out. Manolo Marquez Roca put on a masterclass of how adept coaching and tactical nous are more important to the job than just limitless resources. His young Indian contingent delivered in style -- several coming out of the blue to knock on Igor Stimac's door.
Just the kind of campaign that India's top division desperately needed.
Jamshedpur FC (B+)
Owen Coyle teased a repeat of last season's Chennaiyin heroics with Jamshedpur but after a bright start to the campaign, they just fell flat. Refereeing errors did cost them matches, but that is a plague that has affected nearly everyone in the league -- and Coyle isn't one to sit and complain. Defensively they were shaky, and at the other end profligate, and that's what made the difference between a playoff spot and mid-table mediocrity.
Coyle, though, has shown this season that there is enough substance there that can achieve the success that the Tata group so crave. He just needs the time (and resources) to mould it.
Bengaluru FC (D-)
Sunil Chhetri scoring his 100th goal for the club. Suresh Singh Wangjam cementing his place in the starting XI and staking a strong claim for a national team call up. The defe.. Nah, that's about it. That's about all the positives Bengaluru can take from this campaign.
For a young club that has never known a season without silverware, 2020-21 has been a harsh reminder of just how tough football can be. They sacked long-time coach Carles Cuadrat midway, made it clear to interim coach Naushad Moosa that he was just an interim coach, and their off-field mess neatly translated into on-field dullness. Or vice-versa.
At least they have an AFC Cup campaign coming up to salvage some pride.
Chennaiyin FC (D-)
Csaba Laszlo's men created approximately 10,92,875 chances across 20 games. They scored 17 goals, four fewer than the next lowest-scoring team in the division.
That disparity in creating vs scoring defined Chennaiyin's season. Anirudh Thapa and Rafael Crivellaro's injury-plagued stints didn't help, but this was a systemic issue that lasted from the first match to the last. They simply couldn't score, and when you can't do the most important thing in football, eighth is just about as high as you can finish, no matter how good you are across the other areas of the park..
SC East Bengal (F)
A squad cobbled together at the last minute, players out of their depth, a coach who threw them under the bus at the drop of a hat -- what chance did East Bengal stand really?
They started and ended their campaign with three straight losses. In between, they showed glimpses of potential and the occasional touch of magic courtesy Bright Enobakhare's spectacular individual talent. But that was never going to be enough. Let's just say East Bengal have seen better times in their 100 years of existence.
Ahead of the season, the Kerala Blasters had promised that there was a process in place and a proper vision to go with it. Before the season ended, they had sacked their 10th manager in seven years. Long-term planning, for the win!
Which is not to say it was a completely wrong call. Vicuna's failure to attend to a defence that might as well have not been there cost him his job, and Blasters any chance of competing with the big boys. Or the little ones. The words "Costa and Kone are starting" will haunt Blasters fans for years.
Only Odisha's awfulness saved them from a bottom-of-the table finish.
Odisha FC (F)
Kerala Blasters with that defence finished five points clear of Odisha -- that tells you everything you need to know about the latter's season.
Just about the only good thing about this campaign was the swift decisiveness of the management in handling Stuart Baxter after the manager made an outrageously offensive comment on national television post yet another defeat.