Indian Super League’s level playing field means play-off places still up for grabs

In the second part of this week's Eye on India column, Dileep Premachadran looks at the competitive nature of the Indian Super League.

Chennaiyin FC' forward Jeje Lalpekhlua, centre, vies for the ball with FC Pune City defender Yamnam Raju. Arun Sankar / AFP
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Many pundits still think this season’s Premier League title race could feature six teams — the three London giants (Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur) and three storied clubs from the northwest (Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City).

When the Indian Super League was envisaged, part of the reason for Star Sports throwing their weight behind it was the popularity of the Premier League on Indian cable television.

Having started to show games live in the 1996/97 season, the last two decades have seen an exponential growth in football’s popularity. The hope was that those, especially in metropolitan India, who cheer for United, Chelsea or Arsenal every week would be excited by the prospect of hometown clubs featuring international stars, even if the players were years past their best.

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The television ratings, as well as stadium attendances, have certainly been healthy, helped by the fact that an Indian Premier League-style draft has ensured a fairly level playing field. With each team playing 14 league matches before the knockout stages, we are no closer to discovering who the four semi-finalists are likely to be.

Even the Zico-led FC Goa, runners-up last season but rock bottom currently on 11 points, could make it if they win their last three games. Chennaiyin FC, the defending champions managed by Marco Materazzi, are sixth on 13 points, but have a game in hand on most of the teams above them.

With the exception of the table-topping Delhi Dynamos (17 points) — at the wrong end of a seven-goal thriller against FC Pune City on Friday night — scoring has been a huge problem for every team. Mumbai City FC (16) and Kerala Blasters (15), who are on Delhi’s coattails, have each scored just nine goals apiece.

The benefits of big-league experience were on view in the Delhi-Pune game, where Momo Sissoko, who Rafael Benitez signed for both Valencia and Liverpool, missed a first-half penalty before lashing in the goal that would give Pune the lead in the second half. They now sit in the last qualifying spot, and will need more of the big Malian’s leadership and strength in the tackle to stay there.

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