The inaugural edition of the Hockey India League (HIL) is set to enter the home straight with only two of the five teams enjoying the liberty to chop, change and experiment in the last few matches having made it safely through to the semi-finals.
Delhi Waveriders and Ranchi Rhinos are enjoying the bird's eye view with 39 and 29 points, respectively, at the top of the leaderboard. But while these two have the liberty of resting their key players like Sardar Singh and Moritz Fuerste before the semis, the other three teams are in examination mode with their drawing boards and calculators out.
Punjab Warriors, Uttar Pradesh (UP) Wizards and Mumbai magicians are preparing themselves for last-ditch bravado, wizardry and magic that keeps them alive at the end of the league phase, which enters its last week on Saturday.
While Punjab and UP have had a stop-start tournament, Mumbai have failed to get off the blocks having just a solitary win under their belt. But there's still a lot of mathematics left on and off the field that can take two of these three teams through to the semis.
Punjab - 25 points from 9 games with a goal difference of 0
To play: Two home games (Ranchi and Delhi) and one away game (Ranchi)
Having recovered from the early jitters, Punjab have managed to repair their ship and look much more confident in their final bid to enter the semi-finals. With 8 points clear of fourth-placed UP and almost out of Mumbai's reach, Punjab need just a win or two draws to breathe without any trouble. The worrying part, though, is that those desired results need to come against tournament's two best teams - Delhi and Ranchi.
Punjab have two matches against Ranchi and one against Delhi left to play - two teams they haven't been able to get the better of so far. But of late, Jamie Dwyer's men have shown signs of getting their act together, including a four-match unbeaten run.
However, there is something that will keep the Jaypee-owned franchise on the edge. If Punjab don't win one or draw two out of their last three matches and UP beat Delhi twice but lose both matches to Mumbai who then go on to beat Ranchi as well, then Mumbai will go up to 28 points and UP to 27, throwing Punjab out of the competition with 25 points.
Also there could be a tie on points between Punjab and UP. If Punjab draw one and lose their other two matches, and UP win two and lose two, then both will be at 27 points bringing goal difference into play.
But what remains in Punjab's favour is the fact that UP and Mumbai play each other twice in the last week; whoever loses there is bound to benefit Punjab.
Uttar Pradesh - 17 points from 8 games with a goal difference of -6
To play: Two home games (Mumbai and Delhi) and two away (Mumbai and Delhi)
UP got their campaign off to a promising start, including holding favourites Delhi to a 1-1 draw and blanking Ranchi 2-0. But VR Raghunath and Co. have slipped big time towards the latter part of the league phase, struggling to reach the semis.
Mathematically, UP need to go past their opponents in any two of their last four matches. However, if those two wins were to come against Mumbai, it will ensure Sahara Group a safe passage into the semi-finals, without worrying about the results of their other two games.
But if UP win one and lose three of their last four games and Mumbai win two, then Dabur Group will leapfrog Sahara Pariwar into the semis by one point. Also if UP lose both the matches to Mumbai but defy the odds to beat Delhi twice, they will get to 27 points. In that case, UP will want either Ranchi to beat Mumbai in the final league match or Punjab to taste defeat in their remaining three matches.
But there could also be tie between UP and Punjab at 27 points if UP win two and lose two, and Punjab draw one and lose two of their remaining matches.
So UP's main focus will be to brush Mumbai aside and walk into the knockout stage, which will be to Punjab's liking as well.
Mumbai - 13 points from 9 games with a goal difference of -8
To play - Two home games (UP and Ranchi) and one away game (UP)
Consolation points (teams losing by a margin of 2 or less goals earn 1 point) have kept Mumbai in the hunt, but if Punjab manage to win one or draw two of their last three matches, then Mumbai will trade punches with UP (explained above) for the last spot as two of the remaining matches of both the teams are against each other.
However, with one less match in hand than UP, the Dabur-owned team could be left to rub its hands in the end. That also means Mumbai not only have to beat UP in both the matches, but also upset Ranchi to keep their hopes alive.
One advantage that lies with Mumbai is that they play the last match of the league phase (against Ranchi) and could be in a position to get their calculators out to know what's required to sneak into the last four. In short, Mumbai are the team who depend as much on the other results as what they do on the pitch.
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