Road to semi-finals: Spurred by Habas’ return, ATK chase third title

Antonio Lopez Habas' return as the ATK FC head coach worked out well for the two-time Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) champions this season as the Kolkata-based side finally made it to the semi-finals after finishing outside the top four in the previous two seasons. ATK narrowly missed out on the top spot to FC Goa but finished second on the Hero ISL 2019-20 league table, courtesy some very balanced performances both offensively and defensively. Looking back, here's how ATK sealed their semis qualification.

Form over the season:

It wasn't the best of starts for ATK, as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Kerala Blasters FC in the season opener despite taking the lead in the contest. However, it took no time at all for the red and whites to bounce back as Habas' men announced themselves in a big way with a massive 5-0 result over newcomers Hyderabad FC in Kolkata. They picked up 11 points from their next five matches, picking up three wins and two draws inspired by some stellar performances, particularly from their forward duo - Roy Krishna and David Williams. Their six-match unbeaten run, however, came to an end at the Fatorda after a 2-1 loss at the hands of FC Goa.

In the following match, ATK had to rely on a late Krishna goal to salvage a draw against Hyderabad but followed it up with a stellar tactical display to overcome defending champions Bengaluru 1-0 at home, ending 2019 on a positive note.

The first month of January saw them maintain their form, as they picked up three wins from four fixtures, with their only blemish coming in the shape of a 1-0 home loss to Kerala. Back to back wins in February sealed a place in the top four for ATK and placed them in pole position to grab the top spot heading into their final two fixtures of the league phase. However, a 2-1 loss to Chennaiyin and Goa continuing their form, ended ATK's challenge for the top spot. In their final match of the league phase, ATK held Bengaluru to a 2-2 draw at the Sree Kanteerava after scoring two really late goals.

In essence, ATK have been the most balanced side in the competition, conceding just 16 goals (second-best defensive record behind Bengaluru) and scoring 33 (second-best offensive record behind Goa). Habas' ability to transition seamlessly between three and four men defensive setups, often midway through matches, have been a nightmare for opposition teams to deal with. While ATK are stacked in the offensive areas with the likes of Krishna, Williams and Edu Garcia among their ranks. Agustin Garcia’s departure, however, has been a big blow to their defence, as shown by their last two matches in the league phase. Habas will need to find a way to cope without the defensive lynchpin but given the Spanish gaffer’s proven record of coming up with innovative tactics to address his teams’ weaknesses, expect the Kolkata-based side to pose a stiff challenge for the other title aspirants.

Key Players:

Roy Krishna

The Fiji international has been a revelation for ATK since coming in and has been the spearhead of ATK's charge to the semis. The striker is one of the frontrunners for the Golden Boot with 14 goals and 5 assists from 18 games. Krishna's pace, power and clinical finishing is integral to Habas' counter attacking style of play.

Javier Hernandez

Largely operating under the radar, the Spaniard has been the lynchpin of the ATK midfield, linking up the defence and attack with poise and elegance. The former Real Madrid Castilla midfielder has been highly effective on both ends of the pitch, accounting for five assists whilst affecting 28 interceptions and 13 clearances in his 17 outings thus far. The 30-year-old operating at his best will be pivotal to ATK's title challenge.

Prabir Das

Largely operating as the right wing back for ATK this season, the defender, returning from injury after missing the entirety of last season, has been integral to ATK's run to the semis. While his defensive contributions feature a whopping 71 clearances and 28 interceptions, the 26-year-old's constant overlapping runs have accounted for as many as three assists. But perhaps Prabir's biggest contribution this season has been his ability to stretch opposition defences with his pace and direct running out wide - something which opens up space in the middle for the likes of Krishna and David Williams to exploit.

Semi-final fixtures:

1st Leg: Bengaluru FC vs ATK FC

Date: March 1, 2020

Venue: Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru

2nd Leg: ATK FC vs Bengaluru FC

Date: March 8, 2020

Venue: Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan, Kolkata

Check the full fixtures list here.

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