Sunil Chhetri-led Bengaluru FC became the first club to have confirmed their place in the 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 semis -- 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.
"We play the next two games against teams that are in direct opposition to us; in Goa and against Jamshedpur. A game in hand as well as compared to the others in the top half. So, it's all in our hands. We can dictate what happens in the rest of the season; whether we get to the playoffs or not. So, in that respect, I am still a very happy man," said Chennaiyin FC coach John Gregory.
Another happy man will be Steve Coppell who has been quietly guiding his team to make claims for the play-offs spot.
For a team that began with three draws in a row at the start of the ISL, Jamshedpur have done remarkably well to turn around their fortunes with a massive five wins in their last six matches.
They have tough fixtures for their remaining three matches against Chennaiyin FC, Bengaluru FC and FC Goa but if they manage to grind out victories in two of those three matches, including the last two at home, it could be mission accomplished.
Somehow, early season favourites FC Goa have lost their way. The free-scoring team coached by Sergio Lobera have stuttered along the way and have made things difficult for themselves after picking up just a point from their last three matches. A weak defence has started to haunt them now more than the early stages.
FC Goa season progress will hinge to a large extent on their next home clash against Chennaiyin FC on February 16.