ISL semi-finals preview: Goa start favourites but watch out for Delhi
Photo Credit: Manjunath Kiran / AFP
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After 56 matches played over eight weeks in a highly competitive second season of the Indian Super League, just four teams remain. Table-toppers FC Goa, defending champions Atletico De Kolkata and third-placed Chennaiyin FC will all make their second consecutive appearance in the semis, while Delhi Dynamos FC, who finished fourth in the group stage, will join them in the knockouts for the very first time.

The semifinals – Goa versus Delhi and Kolkata versus Chennai – will be played over two legs, with each side playing one match at home (Chennayin FC will play its home match in Pune because of the floods in Chennai). Goa and Kolkata, owing to a higher finish in the league standings, will play the second legs of their respective ties on home turf – which is generally considered an advantage. It must also be noted that unlike in club football elsewher, the “away goals” rule does not apply in the ISL.

Here’s a brief look at each of the four teams, their key players, and their chances of winning the big prize.

FC Goa

Over two seasons of the ISL, manager Zico’s side have been consistently entertaining. The Brazilian has had to curb his idealist methodology in favour of a more compact system of play this season, but it has been extremely effective. He has had to deal with injuries throughout the campaign, which makes a first-place finish quite an achievement.

With 29 goals, which is an average of more than two a game, Goa are the top scorers this season. On their day, they are simply unstoppable – just ask Mumbai City and Kerala Blasters who were thrashed 7-0 and 5-1. But if you do get at their throats, they can really struggle for rhythm – as was evident in the two 0-4 defeats by Chennai and Kolkata.

After a strong start to the season, Goa were given a sound thrashing at home by Chennaiyin FC – a defeat Zico called the “worst of his managerial career”. In the aftermath of that humbling result, the team adopted a three-man defence to cover for Lucio and Gregory Arnolin’s lack of pace at the back. And the change worked.

Leonardo Moura has been the mainstay of Zico’s side, starting every game except the last one in Delhi, and contributing two goals and eight assists so far. He is playing in a position similar to the one former Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires occupied last season, except Moura has been a massive upgrade. His creativity and passing accuracy have made him dependable.

Moura’s midfield partners Jonathan Lucca and Joffre Mateu aren’t too shabby either, as was evident in the second-half comeback at Delhi on Sunday, while Indian wingers-turned-wing backs Romeo Fernandes and Mandar Rao Desai remain key weapons in attack.

Goa will go in as favourites against Delhi, considering their 100% record in four matches against their semi-final opponents. They are perhaps favourites for the title too as the final will be played in front of their home crowd – though it must be noted that Goa do not have a good record against either Kolkata or Chennai.

Atletico De Kolkata

The defending champions came into their own midway through the ISL season. Prior to that, manager Antonio Habas’ side had picked up points largely through uninspired and sloppy performances. The turning point of their season came in Kochi when midfielder Arata Izumi twice popped up late in the game to win Kolkata a five-goal thriller. Following that win, they managed a creditable draw in Delhi and thumped FC Goa 4-0 and FC Pune City 4-1 at home on their way to the semis.

Iain Hume, who was awarded the Player of the Tournament last season as a Kerala Blasters player, has certainly lived up to the hype. In the absence of marquee player Helder Postiga, who picked up a long-term injury in the opening match of the season, Hume has carried the burden of scoring goals with ten next to his name. A genuine workhorse, he has often popped up everywhere on the pitch – at times, to the detriment of his own team – to inspire his teammates.

But the striker’s support cast has been exceptional too, especially in the second half of the season, and has allowed him to focus on areas in and around the penalty box. Sameehg Doutie, the pacey South African winger, has helped Kolkata rip teams apart on the large field at the Salt Lake Stadium. In nine starts, he has provided three goals and six assists to inspire Kolkata’s revival.

Izumi too has managed to find the net five times in only nine appearances, while Spanish midfielder Jaime Gavilan has added a creative layer to the team and featured in all of Kolkata’s matches. The midfield duo of Borja Fernandez and Oftense Nato ahead of a consistent back four has added stability to the side.

Last season, Kolkata’s sequence of results in the knockout stage were 0-0, 0-0, 1-0 (that too in the 89th minute). Habas’ team knows how to get the job done and perhaps they will curb some of their attacking flair to stop Chennai.

Chennaiyin FC

Two weeks ago, Marco Materazzi-managed Chennaiyin were virtually out of the tournament. But with four wins in a row inspired by bold team selections, the Mariners stormed back from the dead to lift the spirits of a city currently dealing with a natural calamity. Chennai hammered Goa 4-0, Pune 4-1 and Delhi 4-0 this season, underlining their immense potential, but lost both of their matches against Kolkata.

In John Stiven Mendoza, Chennai have the league’s best player in their ranks and the appropriate answer to Kolkata’s Hume. The Colombian is ISL’s leading scorer with 11 goals and his pace and trickery is a nightmare to defend against. He has scored two hat-tricks this season and made up for new signing Fikru Teferra’s no-show and marquee player Elano’s dip in form during the campaign.

Last season, an injury to Mendoza ahead of the semifinals dealt a big blow to Chennai’s chances. This season, Materazzi’s worries lie elsewhere. Raphael Augusto, who has played a pivotal role in transforming Chennai into a potent force, has been ruled out of the tournament. When Materazzi finally had the courage to bench an off-colour Elano, it was Augusto who stepped up from centre midfield along with Bruno Pelissari to steer Chennai into the final four against all odds.

Additionally, two key players, Elano and Mehrajuddin Wadoo, picked up needless yellow cards in their last match against FC Pune City which means they will be suspended for the first leg of the semi-finals. The Brazilian playmaker was cautioned for a blatant dive, while Wadoo, who has started 12 straight matches for his club at right-back, received one for wasting time. No wonder the manager went berserk on the sidelines.

Unfortunately, Chennai will be handicapped by not being able to play at home. The Mariners had been scoring freely in front of their own supporters but the club has announced that they will play their “home” fixture at the Balewadi Sports Complex in Pune – where they won 1-0 in their last game to ensure a spot in the final four.

Delhi Dynamos FC

Pragmatists to the core, manager Roberto Carlos’ Dynamos aren’t always pretty to watch, but they are highly effective in executing a plan. Two weeks ago, Delhi had the best defensive record in the league with a steady back four of Souvik Chakraborty, Anas Edathodika, John Arne Riise and Adinga. But worryingly for the Dynamos, they have let in 11 goals in their last four matches – two of which were dead rubbers.

Carlos doesn’t mind setting his side up for a fight. He may be a Brazilian, but his team is more Uruguayan in its methods. Dynamos lead the fouls charts with an astonishing 221 fouls committed over 14 matches. In the 1-0 win against Chennai at home, Delhi committed 27 fouls to break the opposition’s rhythm. That’s a foul nearly every three minutes.

While the back four has been pivotal to Delhi’s success, former Chelsea midfielder Florent Malouda has been their key player. The 35-year-old has started all their matches – a feat in itself – and has been at the centre of nearly everything good that Delhi have done in the attacking third. His dead-ball delivery is second to none in the ISL and also gives the Dynamos an edge over opponents.

The Brazilian manager has preferred to use the eccentric and often erratic Gustavo Dos Santos, a top performer from last season, as an impact substitute and this has yielded great results. Under Carlos, Indian forward Robin Singh too appears to be buzzing with confidence which reflects in his unerring finishes this season.

Delhi have certainly conceded psychological advantage after allowing their semifinal opponents to come from 0-2 down at half-time to win 3-2 in the final group-stage game. It wouldn’t be surprising if the men representing India’s capital city choose to “fight” their way through to the final. Kolkata did it effectively against Goa last season, holding Zico’s side to two goalless draws and dumping them out in the shootout.