Upsets galore marked the first leg of 11th ONGC National Football League that concluded on Monday, making it a topsy-turvy affair and no firm favourite emerging from the morass of 20 matches played so far.
At the end of four rounds, former champions Dempo Sports Club stole into the lead, thanks to a superior goal difference. They are followed by defending champions Mahindra United, East Bengal and surprise packet Air-India (all with seven points in the kitty). The 'home advantage' contributed largely to the airmen's rosy position.
Impressive Churchill Brothers, the only side not to taste defeat yet, are fifth with six points, followed by JCT (5), Sporting Clube de Goa, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting (4 points each) and predictable cellar team Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (2).
The NFL began on a dramatic note, with inaugural champions JCT Mills, three-time champs East Bengal and strong contenders Sporting Clube de Goa biting the dust in the opening round, while Mohun Bagan were held to a goalless draw by lowly HAL. There have been so many skewed results since then that Sporting Clube de Goa coach Clifford Chukwama on Monday averred that the 'home advantage' did not matter as teams are so well matched that anything can happen on a given day.
The glamour maroon and green brigade, debilitated by injuries, never recovered from the initial setback and languish in eighth position, their low being the 1-4 away rout against Mahindra United.
Brazilian fitness trainer-turned-coach Robson Mattos' methods and choice of players have come under intense scrutiny. Unluckily for him, star forwards Baichung Bhutia and the iconic Jose Barreto have barely got going.
East Bengal zoomed back into contention after their early reversal, but the phlegmatic Carlos Roberto Pereira de Silva's wards will have to do more to prosper. On the positive side, lanky Kenyan spearhead Boniface Ambani has begun to get the goals while Bibiano Fernandes 'Mama' and Alvito D'Cunha have rediscovered their rhythm in the intermediate line.
Dempo bounced back strongly after going down fighting to Mahindra United in Mumbai, routing Mohammedan Sporting 5-0 (the biggest victory margin so far) at home and then pulling off a bitterly contested 3-2 victory over Goa pro league winners Sporting Clube de Goa.
Nigerian striker Ranty Martins orchestrated their revival with four goals while Anthony Pereira and Beto, backed by a top drawer midfield, played the ideal supporting cast.
Sporting Clube have been playing well but the results did not go their way till the fourth round, when they surprised Mahindra United 1-0 on the latter's home turf.
The 'Flamin Oranges' fearsome striker Dudu Omagbemi (three goals) has ploughed a lone furrow upfront as his partner Ernest Jeremiah is yet to find the mark.
The January 22 defeat was a timely wake-up call for the jeepmen, who looked impressive in their victory over Dempo but thereafter never justified their star billing, their surprise 4-1 win over Mohun Bagan not being a true indicator of the match trends.
Mahindra have yet to find the key to consistency. Yusif Yakubu may have sparkled upfront and new recruit Andrews Mensah got the goals, but their midfield and defence have been below par.
Mohammedan Sporting too faded away after handing JCT a shock defeat in the inaugural match in Delhi.
Subhash Bhowmick's side has suffered from the absence of foreigners, like HAL, who too are sailing in the same boat, till the time of writing.
But the team-of-the-tournament so far is promoted Churchill Brothers. The youthful brigade has been fashioned into a cohesive, fighting unit by the astute and urbane Karim Bencharifa, the unsung hero of the league so far. Despite missing their powerful strikers, Odafe Okolie and George Ekeh, in their last encounter versus East Bengal at Kolkata, the Alemao family-owned team rallied to hold the formidable red and gold outfit to a 2-2 draw.
Both Sporting Clube de Goa and Churchill Brothers are yet to win a major all-India tournament and it will take some doing if they can bag the biggest prize in Indian football, though the former Panaji-based outfit is the team in form.
Meanwhile, await some more shocks and surprises when the NFL resumes in three weeks' time.