Indian players fuel the title charge at Odisha FC and ATK Mohun Bagan

Odisha FC and ATK Mohun Bagan have established themselves as genuine contenders for the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) crown this season, thanks to some breathtaking performances. 

The two teams cross swords on Thursday to complete the first half of the league stage of their respective campaigns, knowing that they will remain in the top six irrespective of the result. 

The two teams have earned this cushion thanks to their consistency which has seen them notch up six wins each in the first nine matches of the season. 

There are a lot of common threads between the two teams. They both have Spanish head coaches, and they both like to keep the ball and take the game to the opposition, but most importantly, both Odisha FC and ATK Mohun Bagan have Indian players who are at the heart of their teams’ respective successes. 

Odisha FC have been one of the least reliant teams on foreign players in the league when it comes to goalscoring. 53% of their goals have been scored by Indian players, a statistic only bettered by league leaders Mumbai City FC. Nandhakumar Sekar and Jerry Mawihmingthanga have led from the front after having threatened to do so for the last few campaigns.

ATK Mohun Bagan led in this metric last season but haven’t been able to replicate it this season. While Dimitri Petratos and Hugo Boumous lead the way in goal contributions, Indian players like Liston Colaco, Manvir Singh and Ashique Kuruniyan have impressed with their performances. 

It’s in the defensive sector where the Indians have excelled at ATK Mohun Bagan. Injuries to the likes of Florentin Pogba has meant that Indians have had to fill that spot, and the likes of Pritam Kotal, Subhasish Bose, and Asish Rai have been models of consistency this season.

The Mariners have kept four clean sheets so far this season and are currently on a run of three shutouts in their last three matches, one short of their best-ever run. 

“It's not a secret that ATK Mohun Bagan go out to buy the best Indian players or the best local talent available. They have signed the likes of Manvir Singh and Liston Colaco. Pritam Kotal has been a stalwart there. They are really good players. Deepak Tangri came in from Chennaiyin FC to shore up the midfield, and you look at those players, and you think there's no problem,” says Hero ISL expert and commentator Paul Masefield. 

“At the moment, ATK Mohun Bagan are just getting themselves over the line. But that's what you need if it's not going right for you. I think that's helping to improve the mentality of Indian players,” he adds. 

Strong mentality has been on the show whenever these two sides have played this season, and Odisha FC have displayed it on several occasions having had to come from behind to win matches. They have won nine points from losing positions, with Indian players delivering when it was needed the most. 

“For Odisha FC, you have to look at the two wide players, and you just have to say that Nandha and Jerry have been absolutely magnificent this season. We asked for more consistency and they are starting to show that this season,” Masefield says. 

“I think Thoiba (Singh) has been fantastic this season, and so is Raynier (Fernandes) going forward, and making those runs. It is vitally important for his development that he plays regularly and he is having a wonderful season. They have Amrinder (Singh) in goal who is pushing Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu) for the No 1 spot in the Indian national team. So all the Indian players in these teams have stepped up this year,” he adds. 

The two head coaches, Juan Ferrando and Josep Gombau of ATK Mohun Bagan and Odisha FC, respectively, must take credit for improving the levels of the Indian players in their team. They have managed to create an environment where the local players can express themselves. 

“The two coaches are also a huge factor in why the squads are doing well, and I could imagine a lot of players would like to play under Gombau or Ferrando,” former Hero ISL midfielder Erik Paartalu says. 

“Most of the Indian boys have played in the league for a while now, and I think they are very settled and very comfortable in understanding what is required over a 20-game season,” he adds. 

So on Thursday, when the two sides meet, it could be the performances of the Indian players on the two sides that could decide the outcome. The Juggernauts have been strong at home, winning all the matches that have been played there, but the Mariners will present their biggest test on home soil so far. 

Odisha FC have lost to their fellow contenders Mumbai City FC and Hyderabad FC and will be keen to prove a point against ATK Mohun Bagan. 

“Both teams are pretty equal in terms of where they stand right now, but with ATKMB they probably just edge it in terms of Hero ISL experience, and that could be the decisive factor in finishing off the season,” Paartalu states. 

“Odisha have lost to Hyderabad FC and Mumbai City FC and FC Goa, and if they want to be title contenders, they need to go and get a scalp of a team like ATKMB. If they do that, it will send a real message and would only further enhance the confidence levels of the Odisha FC players,” he adds. 

Whatever the outcome, this battle between two of the strongest teams in the Hero ISL this season will be a tantalising one. It may not decide the fate of their respective seasons but could go a long way in determining which direction it takes.

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