Consistency and fighting spirit highlight champions ATK’s campaign
Consistency, they say, is one of the keys to success. In a short league like the Hero Indian Super League, where equally balanced teams face one another and where on a given day anyone can beat anyone, consistency is hard to come by. Atlético de Kolkata though, with a blend of team work and some fine display both in attack and defence, got more favourable results than the rest and consequently were crowned champions for the second time in the league’s short three-year history. It was not always pretty from ATK though, as they often had to grind out results. This is also highlighted by the fact that they never won a game this season by a difference of more than one goal. Yes, they tasted just two defeats all season but then they also drew 10 matches. Even in the final, they could not find a winner and eventually went on to win on penalties. Be that as it may, they found their way around obstacles and never for once looked like a team without plans.
To begin with, ATK did not get the same amount of home support they got in the past two seasons in terms of volume, owing to the fact that they had to play at the Rabindra Sarobar Stadium instead of the much-bigger Salt Lake Stadium. Their home form was not great either, with just two home victories coming in their entire campaign. But when not winning, they made sure that they at least picked up a point more often than not, and although they finished the league stage in fourth position, their qualification chances at any point were never under any real threat. In fact, they qualified for the semis with a game in hand, and continued playing some cool, collective football to bag the title.
A large chunk of ATK’s success story could be put down to the performance of Iain Hume. The 33-year-old Canadian had come into this season having never won the coveted trophy. He was Kerala and ATK’s top scorer in Hero ISL 2014 and Hero ISL 2015 respectively to no avail. This time around he was once again at his usual best and showcased some fine football, but most importantly scored seven important goals for his team (most by any ATK player this season), which included a crucial brace against Mumbai City FC in the home leg of their semi-final. The brace ultimately was the deciding factor in Kolkata’s progression to the final.
Their coach Jose Molina must also be credited for creating a winning team in his debut season. In a short league like the Hero ISL, he managed to get the right combination of players quickly, and also strategised the tactics to perfection. There were injury issues often but the Spaniard always had good replacements up his sleeve. He put his faith in certain players who wouldn’t probably feature much in other coaches’ scheme of things. For example, Debjit Majumder wasn’t one of your tall goalkeepers, however, Molina saw a lot of qualities in him, like his ability to get down quickly to make a save and his composure while dealing with the ball in the box. The 28-year-old repaid the faith by putting in good performances in each match and went on to become the hero in the penalty shootout in the final.
En-route to their title, ATK had to overcome quite a few tough situations and they won some keenly-contested encounters. One of their most important results was subjecting Kerala to their only home loss early in the season when a deflected Javi Lara winner gave them all three points. However, they had to withstand a barrage of Kerala attacks for those points. It was here that their defenders first gave a great account of themselves.
One of Kolkata’s strong points this season has been the fact that they have had an answer to everything. That showed in their away tie against FC Goa where, having led for the most part of the match owing to a Juan Belencoso goal, they conceded late on in the 80th minute. At that stage of the league, all teams had a fair chance of reaching the semi-finals, and Kolkata really could not afford to drop those two vital points. Molina’s men pressed on and eventually found a winner thanks to Stephen Pearson’s finish in injury time. In similar fashion, they found a way to victory against NorthEast United FC in Guwahati earlier in the season. They had fallen behind to an Emiliano Alfaro goal in the 39th minute but two second-half strikes from Helder Postiga (63rd minute) and Belencoso (82nd minute) set the tone for an impressive victory.
Consistent that they have been, Kolkata also rode their luck at times. In the home match against Delhi Dynamos FC, Kolkata had conceded a penalty which Golden Boot winner Marcelinho shot over the bar, and from almost the very next attack, ATK got a penalty of their own. Hume took the penalty and unlike Marcelinho, he made no mistake, bagging maximum points for the home side.The first leg of their semi-final saw an attack-minded Kolkata come to the surface as they put three goals past the best defence in the league, that of Mumbai. They conceded two in the same match but it turned out to matter little as they stood firm in defence to eke out a 0-0 draw in the second leg that saw them through to the final, courtesy of a 3-2 aggregate in their favour.
ATK were certainly on the back foot in the final when Kerala’s local boy Mohammed Rafi gave the Blasters the lead in the 37th minute in front of over 54,000 home fans in Kochi. Kolkata though never allowed themselves to be intimidated, and seven minutes later found an equaliser from an unlikely source, Henrique Sereno. They were again on the back foot during the shootout when their talisman Hume missed their very first spot-kick. However, a combination of good fortune, when Didier Boris Kadio blasted his penalty over the crossbar, and good goalkeeping, when Majumder saved Cedric Hengbart’s penalty with his leg, saw Kolkata sealing the ultimate prize.
All in all, it would be fair to say that Kolkata deserved to win the league. They came up with good performances in all four departments and got their job done. Teams like Delhi, who had scored a whopping 27 goals in the league stage, and Mumbai, who conceded a mere eight in the same phase, could not come up with the goods when it mattered. Kolkata’s consistency and their fine display of football prevailed and they deservedly brought the Hero ISL trophy back to the mecca of Indian football.