Bengaluru qualified, test of nerves for others
New Delhi: Sunil Chhetri-led Bengaluru FC became the first club to have confirmed their place in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) season four play-offs with three matches still to play.
The debutants sit comfortably on top of the table with 33 points, having scripted 11 victories from 15 games.
However, with completion of 71 of the 90 matches this ISL season, the next three weeks will see tough competition for the other three spots.
The club that is closest is FC Pune City having more than one foot in the semi-finals — but with 28 points and three matches in hand, they too cannot take their place for granted.
Such has been the competition for play-off places this expanded season that at least six teams believe they have a genuine qualification chance.
Eventually only the best three, apart from Bengaluru FC, will get the nod and the teams are now bracing themselves for some stiff competition at the business end of the ISL. "We still have 12 points to play for. If we win the four games that we have, we can still have a possibility. Now we have to think about giving our best, not make mistakes and we cannot even afford to draw," said Mumbai City FC coach Alexandre Guimaraes, whose team was held back by Pune City on Sunday with a 2-0 victory in the Maharashtra Derby.
The win helped Pune City take their points tally to 28 and they now occupy the second spot. On a normal day, these points should have been enough to make Pune's dream come true. They have never qualified for the semi-finals since the league's inception in 2014, but with Jamshedpur FC (25 points), Chennaiyin FC (24 points), Kerala Blasters (21 points) and FC Goa (20 points) all breathing down their neck, they cannot afford to take their eyes off the points table.
Of interest will be Pune's next two matches: The first against leaders Bengaluru FC (February 16) and then a potential six-pointer against FC Goa on February 25. Their final game is away to Delhi Dynamos, who despite being at the bottom of the pool have already defeated Bengaluru FC and stopped Chennaiyin FC.
Interestingly, Pune had also lost their home game against Delhi in their ISL-4 campaign opener on November 22 last year. Chennaiyin FC's draw against bottom-placed Delhi Dynamos on Sunday will hurt their chances of qualification.
They dropped two points which could cost them much more than just the third spot, with crucial games coming up against FC Goa, Jamshedpur FC and Kerala Blasters.