Hyderabad FC and ATK Mohun Bagan are two of the strongest contenders for the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) crown, as they possess some of the best players in the league. 

The intensity of the two semi-final legs played between the teams last season was evidence of not just the quality of players but also the calibre of the two head coaches–Juan Ferrando of ATK Mohun Bagan and Manolo Marquez of Hyderabad FC. 

Hyderabad FC got the better of ATK Mohun Bagan, who then went on to win the Hero ISL title last season, but the tie was decided by fine margins. 

The defending champions have made a better start this Hero ISL season than the Mariners, who are currently six points behind the visitors, ahead of their meeting at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata on Saturday. But the Kolkata giants have a game in hand over their opponents and have the chance to get level on points if they can beat Hyderabad FC and also win against Bengaluru FC the next match week. 

Settled Hyderabad FC vs uncertain ATK Mohun Bagan

Both teams come into the game on the back of defeats, but the Mariners’ 0-3 loss against FC Goa seems to have left more questions for the coach than Hyderabad FC’s 0-1 defeat against Kerala Blasters FC. 

It was ATK Mohun Bagan’s second loss of the season compared to Hyderabad FC’s first. But with the Mariners, there are still question marks about whether they know what’s their best foot forward. 

Juan Ferrando, for me, tinkers too much. We have seen ATK Mohun Bagan play with three at the back, and we have also seen them play with four at the back. Sometimes we have seen them play with three in the middle of the park and three up front. We have seen them play with two defensive midfield players as well.

The big difference between the two teams is that Manolo Marquez has found his best XI, and I think Ferrando is yet to find his. It may sound daft but that is true not just in terms of the playing personnel but also in terms of the style. We saw that last week when they lost. ATK Mohun Bagan have played some unbelievable football this year yet, he suddenly chops and changes the system, the formation. 

Manolo Marquez sets up in a 4-2-3-1 formation and hasn't deviated. He will chop and change personnel as and when required, but he does like to stick to that fast and steady system and get the best out of the players in those positions. Hyderabad FC haven't changed at all tactically from last season. You know exactly what you will get from them and it works for them. 

As for ATK Mohun Bagan, they have brought in new players, but you can't put square pegs in round holes. You can't keep chopping and changing systems and formations because players can get confused, and get away from your idea of how you want to play the game. So a lot of work needs to be done at ATK Mohun Bagan–and they need to find a consistent way.

Where could the match be won on Saturday? 

The game will be won in the middle of the park. Deepak Tangri will play a pivotal role along with Hugo Boumous, and maybe Carl McHugh, given who Ferrando chooses to replace the injured Joni Kauko. We may see him chop and change a couple of players because he wasn't happy with what happened in the last game. 

I think for Hyderabad FC, Hitesh Sharma has got to get back in there. I know he is injured, but they will hope that he is going to be fit for this one. Joao Victor is absolutely immense and magnificent for them. He is the driving force in the middle of the park and can cause all sorts of problems.  

We need to talk about the wide areas as well. Liston Colaco and Manvir Singh have been up and down, so there are big decisions for Ferrando as to whom to pick in this game against Hyderabad. 

The visitors will have Halicharan Nazary down one flank and Mohammad Yasir down the other–and with them, you will get a 100% work rate going forward as well as while tracking back. Whoever wins these individual battles will win this match.