Kotal: We had to pay for our small mistakes in every match against Mumbai City FC in Hero ISL 2020-21

Pritam Kotal is one of the few players to have featured in all seven Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) seasons so far. He has won the prestigious trophy twice with ATK FC in 2016 and 2019-20. Earlier this year, playing in ATK Mohun Bagan colours, there was an opportunity to win a third Hero ISL trophy, however, Mumbai City FC beat the Mariners in the final 2-1 to spoil Kotal’s plans. The 27-year-old defender recently spoke to indiansuperleague.com and discussed a variety of topics, from ATK Mohun Bagan’s campaign in the 2020-21 Hero ISL to the postponement of the 2021 AFC Cup Group D (South Zone) matches to FC Goa’s performance in the group stage of the 2021 AFC Champions League to how he has been coping with the ongoing Covid-19 situation. Here is the interview in full.

How are you keeping fit and healthy in this terrible Covid situation?

Really, we are going through a terrible time. Nothing is going well around us. In this situation, going out for practice is impossible. That’s why I do my daily workout at my own gym. I have set it up inside my residential premises, so I can use it during these times. Other than this, I practise with the ball every day on my rooftop.

You were supposed to be back in action, in the AFC Cup in the Maldives. But the matches are postponed now. How did you receive the news?

The Covid situation is not good in other countries too. That’s why, we must accept the decision made by the AFC. I believe they have taken the call after going through the situation thoroughly. They must have kept the issue of health of the players in mind while taking this decision. The matches have been postponed, not cancelled. I hope they will reschedule the matches and we will be able to get back to the field soon. Then we’ll again prepare ourselves in a better way.

Had you prepared properly ahead of the competition though?

Definitely. Because, for the last few weeks, along with my teammates, coaches and officials, my focus was only on the AFC Cup matches. That’s why almost everybody prepared well. We have regular communications with our head coach. Our trainer sends us the schedule and visuals of the workouts to be done regularly. And I follow his instructions. We were about to start the preparation as a team. But before that the matches were postponed.

Let’s go back to Hero ISL 2020-21. ATK Mohun Bagan lost all their three matches against Mumbai City FC. What went wrong against them?

I tried to find out the exact reasons by going through all the crucial moments of the matches against them after the Hero ISL got over. In our first match, the goal scored by [Bartholomew] Ogbeche was the result of mistakes committed by us. As a team, we played quite well in that match. Before Ogbeche’s goal, Edu Garcia had almost scored. Unfortunately, the ball hit the inner portion of the post and came back. In the second leg also, small mistakes let us down. We knew they are good at set-pieces. Mourtada Fall, Ogbeche, Adam le Fondre all are good with their heads. That’s why we were asked to mark them closely by our coach. But we couldn’t do that perfectly. We were not allowed to commit any foul in front of our box. But we let that happen. They took that opportunity too. Later, we tried a lot to score. But we failed to do that. Maybe, in the second leg match, we didn’t deserve the win. But in the first leg and the final, we played like a winner.

Despite a one-goal lead you lost the final after a last-minute goal by Mumbai City FC. Tiri scored an own goal before that. Most of the experts say that the misunderstanding or miscommunication between the defenders and the goalkeeper did for the Mariners. As one of the defenders, do you agree with them?

Look, when the best two teams clash in the final… these matches have high intensity and even small mistakes can affect the result. We lost the final due to our mistakes in that match. Otherwise, everybody knows, how well we played in that contest, for the large part. What experts say, it’s their opinion after watching the match from the outside. I respect their views.

But what I feel as an insider is that in the second half, we were a little bit ahead of our positions. In the case of their first goal [Tiri’s own goal], the long ball from just before Mumbai City FC’s penalty box was quite high for us. As all the defenders were ahead, our goalkeeper [Arindam Bhattarcharja] also came forward to clear the ball. Maybe his sudden decision was not right at that very moment. Probably, he was double-minded at that time. But this is obvious, when the whole team goes ahead, including defenders, goalkeeper also positions himself a few more steps ahead. We planned that way. When the ball flew into our box, it was within the reach of our goalkeeper. But there was a mistake for a moment, which cost us the first goal. I don’t see any miscommunication or misunderstanding in that incident. Being on the ground, this is my observation.

There was a dip in ATK Mohun Bagan’s performance in the latter part of the season. Why this sudden slide happened?

A good team always goes ahead maintaining a flow. We also kept going in the league phase with consistency. But some of our main players like Edu, Javier [Hernandez], Carl [McHuge] had injury problems at regular intervals and in crucial parts of the competition. If you can remember, we missed both Tiri and Sandesh [Jhingan] in the first leg of the semifinal. We got affected mainly for this reason. But the players, who replaced them, played well. But injuries in crucial matches cost us heavily. It affected the balance of our team combination.

Experts say, Tiri’s form, Jhingan’s injury weakened your defence line-up in the latter part of the season. You played as a central defender along with Carl in the first semifinal with Prabir Das and Subhasish Bose as two wingbacks. This combination was never seen before. Was that a serious blow?

A set team reaches a higher confidence level after playing a good number of matches. If one or two players suddenly can’t continue with the team, the balance of the team gets spoilt. It happens to all the big teams around the world too. If you look at Liverpool this season, injury to two-three key players has made them weaker. The defending champions are presently fifth on the points table. As you rightly said, in the first leg of the semifinal, Carl played as a stopper along with me. As we all know, he prefers to play a little bit up. But we had to manage as there was no other way. That’s why, he was not comfortable in that position. Maybe for that, we conceded a goal despite the lead.

Did the disappointment of not winning the League Shield affect your performance in the final?

Not at all. To be honest, we were definitely disappointed for that loss to Mumbai City FC [in the last match of the league stage]. But it never affected our ambition to be the champions. From the very next day after that loss, we shifted our focus completely to the final forgetting everything in the past. We discussed in the dressing room, in team meetings that we should go for the trophy now and that was our only motto. During the final we never thought about the earlier matches. It was a fresh match for us and that’s why we fought like a champion in that match. We deserved the trophy.

If you were to pick one, which one would it be, League Shield or Hero ISL trophy?

Undoubtedly, the championship is very important. But qualification for the AFC Champions League (AFCCL) could take us to a better level, to the international arena. We had that opportunity. The standard of our team is very high. I believe, with this team, we could have qualified for the second round of the AFCCL next season. That’s why, I thought, it was important for us.

What do you make of FC Goa’s performance in the AFCCL?

They were excellent. Many people predicted that they can’t perform well against big foreign clubs. This has become our habit. We always lose before taking the field. Most of us can’t believe that our clubs can fight with renowned overseas teams. But FC Goa have shattered all these concepts with their superb performance. Now the other Indian clubs [Mumbai City FC next season] will get more confidence from FC Goa’s performance going forward. FC Goa’s high-level performance at that level was awesome. They could have made it to the next round with the kind of football they played. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

Finally, about Dheeraj Singh… He moved to FC Goa from ATK Mohun Bagan during the January transfer window. Now he is the new star in Indian football. What’s your take on his recent performance in AFCCL?

He is a real star in the making. Because he is very hard working and dedicated to football. He always gives his best in training sessions. Not bothered about opportunities, he always makes himself ready to take the field, whenever asked. His great performance recently in AFCCL is the result of this dedication. We knew that, if he is given an opportunity, he can prove himself. And that’s exactly what happened. Dheeraj has improved a lot. But still, he has many things to improve on. I believe he can do that. When he was at ATK Mohun Bagan, our main goalkeeper Arindam consistently performed well throughout the season. That’s why Dheeraj had no space in the first eleven. For this reason, our club decided to release him, so he can get to play regularly and prove himself. This decision of the club was excellent for his career. I wish him good luck.


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