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ISL 2016: Atletico de Kolkata's road to final from slow start to sudden turnaround in semis

“We will try to be an aggressive team in attack and defence. We will look to have possession of the ball, move forward, try and score,” Jose Molina’s words ahead of Atletico de Kolkata’s (ATK) first home match in the third edition of Indian Super League (ISL) back in October had appeased the club's fans.

The Spaniard, however, drew some flak when ATK’s performances failed to live up to the expectations.

As Kolkata played out their fifth draw in 10 matches against NorthEast United (NEU) at Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in the middle of November, there were murmurs of discontent regarding Molina’s inability to get the best out of one of the strongest squads in the competition.

 ISL 2016: Atletico de Kolkatas road to final from slow start to sudden turnaround in semis

Atletico de Kolkata will look to clinch the trophy for the second time in the tournament's history. Sportzpics

Yet, a month later, the former Atletico Madrid custodian’s strategy to navigate through a taxing fixture and travel schedule was validated when ATK put in their “best attacking performance” against Mumbai City FC in the first leg of their semi-finals.

Molina had big shoes to fill when he took over from Antonio Habas, who is regarded as the finest tactician plying his trade in the ISL. Molina had a carefully assembled squad at his disposal, comprising of players familiar with Indian conditions and a core group comprising of Borja Fernandez, Iain Hume, Helder Postiga, Sameehg Doutie, Javier Lara, Arnab Mondal — all of whom had previously played together — striking a right balance of youth and experience.

This stability in the squad played a significant role in Atletico’s consistency through the group stages – although mediocre in front of the goal, they were never far from contention for the knockouts in a season which was full of ups and downs for most clubs.

While some clubs like NEU peaked early, while others like FC Pune City failed to reach top four despite a late dash of positive results, the Indian Rojiblancos persevered. In stark contrast to Habas’ managerial style, ATK not only seemed more affable this season, but the relaxed approach of Molina worked wonders when it came to the intense nature of the competition.

Unbeaten in their first five matches, Kolkata had proved their resilience when they came back from behind to snatch a point at Mumbai, after being outclassed in the first half by some classic pressing from an in-form Alexandre Guimaraes-coached side. Their 1-0 win against the Kerala Blasters at Kochi, and a closely-fought victory by similar scoreline against the Delhi Dynamos at home set the tone for the rest of the tournament – Atletico may not be prolific scorers, but they picked up points on a regular basis.

While eight draws in fourteen matches were an indication of Kolkata’s shortcoming in finishing games off, just two losses over the course of three months speaks strongly about the club’s tenacity and composure. Molina’s endless tinkering with the defensive personnel was detrimental to his club's chances of keeping consecutive clean sheets, but provided much needed game-time to the squad players.

Molina’s policy of heavily rotating his squad (all players barring goalkeeper Shilton Paul and midfielder Bikash Jairu have had minutes under their belt) paid dividends when the likes of Doutie and Postiga spent lengthy spells on the sidelines owing to injuries. While Doutie’s injury robbed ATK of a vital attacking option in the second half of the group stages, Molina came up with an alternate gameplan and used new acquisition Stephen Pearson to brilliant effect by picking up crucial points against FC Goa and NorthEast.

Postiga’s return to the Atletico fold was, however, a lot more crucial as the marquee player, along with Hume, contributed to twelve goals (three assists included) between the two of them. Although Molina’s forwards struggled to put the ball into the back of the net, the Kolkata did create a flurry of chances in every game and outplayed their opponents on most occasions.

Whenever pressed about his team’s inefficacy in converting chances to goals, the Spaniard reiterated how it was “important to look past the results”, for “goals would eventually come” as long as the players continued to execute the plans and “work behind the scenes”.

ATK may not have had an Indian goalscorer until the first leg of their semi-finals (when Lalrindika Ralte broke the deadlock as early as the fourth minute) but the finalists have managed to unearth a quartet of fine young Indian talent in Dika Ralte, Abinash Ruidas, Prabir Das and Pritam Kotal – Ruidas and Das being the most impressive of the lot.

Atletico accomplished a complete turn-around in the semi-finals when they got the better of Mumbai City FC over 180 minutes – relying on Hume’s elegant centre-forward play in the first leg and Sereno and Tiri’s defensive prowess in the second leg.

Not only did Molina use Atletico’s extensive squad depth to rest some of his key men ahead of what is expected to be an intense finale, but he also sounded the clarion call for Steve Coppell’s Kerala Blasters that the champions of the inaugural edition of the ISL have a trick or two up their sleeves in case their initial tactical juggernaut does not work on match day.

On Sunday, Atletico will face a physically exhausted Kerala Blasters side (who had to play thirty extra minutes with one less day of rest) but at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Kochi – a venue where the Blasters have remained undefeated since the last time Atletico came to town.

Coppell’s side, with the zealous, fanatical crowd support in their corner and a set of players who have finally brought into their manager’s definition of the club’s identity, will have the upper hand courtesy their home advantage.

However, anything which has been a surety when it comes to this ATK side is the fact that they thrive under pressure, and on Sunday, Molina could very well replicate Habas’ legacy, albeit with a bit more panache.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 12:12:09 IST