ISL 2019-20: Dedication, ambition and Antonio Habas' tactical acumen lace ATK's glory of winning third title
Footballers thrive off the energy of match-going fans, but even playing to empty stands, ATK created a buzz, dismantling Chennaiyin FC’s dream of writing a fairytale conclusion for their impressive turnaround midway through the season.
Antonio Habas polished off a perfect comeback to India with ATK lifting a historic third Indian Super League title following their 3-1 triumph over Chennaiyin FC in the finals of the recently concluded edition at the Fatorda Stadium in Goa.
Held behind closed doors due to a government directive issued in order to prevent community spread of the COVID-19, ATK sizzled and managed to shift the focus – though only temporarily –from the pandemic which has halted normal proceedings across the globe to the sheer joy football manages to effuse even during the darkest of hours.
Footballers thrive off the energy of match-going fans, but even playing to empty stands, ATK created a buzz, dismantling Chennaiyin FC’s dream of writing a fairytale conclusion for their impressive turnaround midway through the season. It was Owen Coyle’s side, however, which started on the front foot and had two incredible opportunities to open the scoring at as early as the third minute.
Nerijus Valskis who finished the season with the Golden Boot found the crossbar moments after Rafael Crivellaro’s dangerous cross into the six-yard box was cleared by Prabir Das – an early sign of ATK backing themselves with fortune favouring the Kolkata-based franchise. While Chennaiyin FC moved the ball through the channels with the same fervour displayed in their semi-final heroics over table toppers FC Goa, ATK managed to retain their shape and bear the early onslaught, only to grow into the game as minutes progressed.
Chennaiyin’s brand of direct, attacking football while enthralling to watch, came up short against a side which has made it a habit of tailoring their playing style to counter the opponents, all the while remaining true to their identity. Since their season opener against Kerala Blasters FC which resulted in a narrow defeat, Habas persisted with the 3-5-2 formation. Relying heavily on the partnership of Roy Krishna and David Williams for their offensive threat, ATK did face the hurdle of Krishna picking up a hamstring injury late into the first half, but their well-drilled defence saw out everything Chennaiyin directed towards Arindam Bhattacharya’s goal, while the midfielders went about their job effortlessly.
The first goal of the final came through an unlikely source. David Williams allowed Krishna’s inch-perfect cross to trickle through the Chennaiyin defence who were caught unaware by Javi Hernandez’s run – the Spaniard finding the back of the net with a volley of his own. The goal spurred Chennaiyin to create more clear-cut chances but an equalizer eluded them, only for ATK to double their lead three minutes after half time.
Edu Garcia, who moved up front following Krishna’s withdrawal, perfectly placed his shot into the far corner to successfully round off a move orchestrated by Williams purely based on his strength and agility. Chennaiyin threw the kitchen sink at Bhattacharya, getting a goal back through Valskis, who had put on yet another strong performance, but it was too little, too late.
ATK capped off the night comfortably with Hernadez once again finding himself on the scoresheet – allowing ATK a well-deserved titular win in its final season as the club which started it all in the inaugural season, for the Kolkata-based franchise will soon merge with Mohun Bagan FC.
Krishna, although injured in the most crucial fixture of the season, carried the team with sheer panache through the entire season – the Fijian’s exploits in front of the goal carving a story in itself, allowing ATK to flourish even in moments of uncertainty. Combined with the likes of Jayesh Rane, Michael Soosairaj and Prabir, who have all had excellent individual campaigns, ATK created their own niche – not perfect, but definitely efficient. They did not go without their share of defeats and heartbreaks, even settling for a 1-0 loss in the first leg of their semi-finals against Bengaluru FC, but every time they managed to bounce back with a spring in their step – learning from their errors and honing their strengths.
Antonio Habas’ return to the fold combined with their meticulous selection of personnel across all departments was the deciding factor in the end. Habas lifted the trophy for the second time, a historic feat in the league’s short span – his tactical acumen often understated in front of his disciplinarian methods which bore fruits for the club.
“I have to congratulate the players for their discipline and behaviour. We are as a group all the time both on and off the pitch. We had big problems with injuries to McHugh, Agus and today with Roy. The strength of the team was a collective,” Habas told reporters after the game, adding, “We didn’t play well [today] but we had fantastic behaviour. We had to work and sometimes we win with heart.”
ATK had an expensively assembled squad of extremely talented footballers, but their return to the throne is as much down to dedication as it was to ambition. A well-balanced squad which was rigorously moulded into a scintillating playing XI eventually proved that they were miles ahead of competition in this season – triumphing in a final when they weren’t even in their absolute best.
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