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Stephen Pearson and the butterfly effect

Stephen Pearson's goal knocked out two teams - Chennaiyin FC and Pune City FC.
Stephen Pearson's goal knocked out two teams - Chennaiyin FC and Pune City FC.

Edward Lorenz is credited with coining the term 'butterfly effect' as a concept for a small cause that can have a large effect, best described by an example of a hurricane being influenced by the flapping of a butterfly in a fair distance several weeks earlier.

November 29 witnessed the butterfly effect in a sublime bit of skill executed by three key players of Atletico de Kolkata in the first half of their match against the Kerala Blasters at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium.

It was, in essence, a sequence of touches between five touches between Stephen Pearson, Helder Postiga and Iain Hume -- culminating in Pearson getting his second ISL goal in as many games for 2016. It took the score to 1-1, but by the time the final whistle was blown, it meant two more teams (Atletico de Kolkata and Delhi Dynamos) had joined Mumbai City FC in the playoffs, while two others (FC Pune City and Chennaiyin FC) were out of the running alongside 2015 runners-up FC Goa.

This is the fickle nature of the sport, and particularly the ISL. In an ideal world, you would have the last set of matches kicking off on the same day and at the same time, so that teams do not know exactly what they need to do.

The ISL, still an exhibition event of sorts in its early years, bows to more non-traditional conventions like broadcast commitments and pre-decided fixture lists. This means there are only two meaningful games left to decide which four teams will play the semi-finals, though the match-ups and venues will be determined by a combination of all five games that remain. Each of the three confirmed semi-finalists have unique strengths and qualities, but we could leave that discussion for another day.

Kerala Blasters, now up to 19 points, will consider themselves favourites going into a final match day home game against contenders NorthEast United. NorthEast are at 15 points with two matches to play, the first of which is Wednesday's home game against Delhi Dynamos. They need to beat Kerala in any case, but against a Delhi side that has lost just two matches this season, even a point would be enough to set them up for the playoffs. This is because head-to-head will come into play against Kerala, and having beaten them once before on the opening day, beating them again on the last day in Kochi will render goal difference completely irrelevant.

The last time NorthEast United met Delhi, Emiliano Alfaro scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw.
The last time NorthEast United met Delhi, Emiliano Alfaro scored the equaliser in a 1-1 draw.

So what unravels at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Guwahati then? Does Gianluca Zambrotta take the foot off the pedal now that his team are through to their second successive last-four appearance? Should he rest some of his key players and give them time to rev up for the playoffs or keep the momentum going with the strongest possible eleven against a NorthEast team that will go hard at them, just like they did against Chennaiyin FC away in their last game?

There are no easy answers, but the spectacle will be a fascinating one. If NorthEast can nick even one point at home, it will make for a rousing finish at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kochi.

For once, the broadcasters would be justified in dubbing it a 'Super Sunday'.

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