A new manager, a different home ground, a revitalised squad and even a new anthem – Atletico de Kolkata is looking to approach the third edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) with a fresh perspective. The Kolkata-based franchise have always been a force to reckon with in the past two seasons, but last year’s semifinalists are aiming to create a new identity for themselves, while challenging for the title they won in the inaugural season.
A Recap of Last Season
Atletico de Kolkata began their season with a win over eventual champions Chennaiyin FC but soon faced an injury-riddled conundrum as they failed to win a few closely-contested matches – losing three consecutive games by a solitary goal margin.
A distinct lack of creativity in the final third held back Atletico as they struggled to cope without their marquee signing Helder Postiga.
Iain Hume and Sameehg Doutie’s unconventional partnership got the ball rolling for Antonio Habas’ side – Hume’s work rate and finishing prowess combined with Doutie’s creativity and pace to spearhead the Atletico offense.
Atletico went unbeaten for five matches on the trot, annihilating the likes of FC Goa and FC Pune City and eventually finishing second in the league standings, not only in terms of points but also in terms of goals scored as well as least goals conceded. Individual errors at the back cost Atletico de Kolkata the semi-final tie as they could not recover from a three-goal deficit incurred in the first leg, but overall it was a successful season for the pre-tournament favorites.
Jose Molina – The New Gaffer in Town
With Antonio Habas pricing himself out of the club’s budget, Atletico de Kolkata turned towards Jose Francisco Molina, a former defender with the Kolkata-based franchise’s Spanish counterpart. Molina, who briefly took charge of Villarreal in 2010/11 season, previously managed Hong Kong Premier League club Kitchee SC whom he guided to a domestic treble during his only season at helm.
Adjusting to Molina’s tactical system could take some time for Atletico de Kolkata’s regular starters, but Iain Hume put it very aptly, “Different coaches have different philosophy. You have to adapt and that’s football. It’s exciting times for the players and the coach. We are going to do everything to entertain, but we have to get results. If we can get results then fine, and if we can do it with a bit of flair and a bit if Spanish football charm it will be a really good season.”
While Antonio Habas has always stressed on the importance of preserving the team’s shape with or without the ball, Atletico are likely to play a more free-flowing, high-pressing style of football under Molina.
Atletico Squad Sports A New Look
Atletico de Kolkata must find themselves a new custodian at the back, with Shilton Paul and Debjit Majumder set to contest for a regular starting position. In Dani Mallo, Atletico have an experienced third-choice shot-stopper, capable of filling the gap in case of injuries.
Atletico de Kolkata struggled during transitions last season, with the onus resting solely on Jaime Gavilan (no longer a part of the Atletico squad) and the wide midfielders. The acquisition of Bikramjit Singh adds much needed steel into the Atletico midfield, for the 23-year-old can anchor Atletico’s midfield alongside veteran Borja Fernandez.
Lalrindika Ralte and Bikash Jairu, both plying their trade for East Bengal, bring in the much needed creativity into Molina’s squad. Ralte, one of India’s premiere young attacking midfielders, is known for his playmaking abilities and long-range shooting and could prove to be one of the breakout stars of this season. Jairu’s goal-scoring exploits make him a valuable asset – both as a starter and an impact substitute – the Indian winger being the perfect foil for Sameehg Doutie on the opposite flank.
With experienced campaigners like Ofentse Nato, Javi Lara and Stephen Pearson in their ranks, Atletico boasts of one of the strongest midfields in the competition – possessing tremendous flexibility as well as bench strength.
In Iain Hume and Helder Postiga, Molina has two proven marksmen. Should either of these two elite centre forwards discover their form during the next three months, Atletico de Kolkata would not be lacking in the goalscoring department. However, it is crucial for Atletico de Kolkata that both their strikers, the industrious Hume and marquee signing Postiga remain injury-free, or else the ‘Red and White’ squad could be stretched thin upfront.
Defensive solidarity will be crucial for Atletico’s chances this season – Molina is likely to start familiar faces like Arnab Mondal and Tiri in central defense but the arrivals of Kingshuk Debnath, Keegan Pereira and Pritam Kotal offer the Spaniard a variety of options at back. Lapses in concentration cost the Kolkata-based club dearly last season and how quickly the team adapts to Molina’s tactical set-up will decide whether Atletico qualifies for the knock-outs.
Jose Molina has huge boots to fill, replacing arguably the most successful manager of the Indian Super League so far. With an intense three-month schedule, it won’t be just the squad’s technical ability, but also their manager’s temperament to handle pressure and expertise to adapt to the quickly changing scenarios on the pitch and in the league standings, which will decide Atletico’s fate come December. Atletico de Kolkata open their campaign against defending champions Chennaiyin FC on 2 October at Rabindra Sarobar Stadium, Kolkata.