When the fixtures for ISL3 were released, two matches that generated maximum interest were Chennaiyin FC travelling to FC Goa and FC Pune City visiting Kolkata. As it turned out, the best is not always reserved for the last.
By the time Thursday’s match between FC Goa and Chennaiyin FC --- last year’s finalists whose contest in Margao ended with former Brazil international Elano Blumer spending time in a police station --- came around, both were eliminated. As was Antonio Lopez Habas’ team FC Pune City, which play Atletico de Kolkata (ATK) here on Friday.
As ATK coach, Habas had won the first ISL and took them to the semi-final in season 2. ATK owner Sourav Ganguly had referred to the Spaniard as the team’s heartbeat, one who was as animated on the touchline as another Antonio even though he is 12 years older than the Italian rocking Stamford Bridge this season.
“I waited for a call that never came,” said Habas, referring to why he switched teams. Certain terms and conditions Habas proposed were not acceptable to us, ATK explained through a media release in the evening.
Banned for four games for misdemeanour in the second-leg of the ATK-Chennaiyin FC semi-final last term, Habas was not on the touchline when the season began in October. That is one of the reasons why FC Pune City could be the only ISL team to not make the semi-finals ever, he said.
They also lost Cameroonian Andre Bikey, who could play in defence and midfield, and marquee Eidur Gudjohnsen before ISL3 to injuries and had a raft of new players.
“ATK have 80% foreigners same (seven out of the 11). We have to tell Pune management to retain players. We have almost 90% squad new so it takes time,” said Habas.
But when the question about ATK popped up, Habas refused to be drawn into a comparison. “Just like you cannot compare two girlfriends,” he said, referring to the teams he helmed and the one managed by Jose Molina.
With his young son Mateo sat among journalists in a Chelsea shirt, Molina said he wasn’t sure whether playing the second-leg of the semi-final at home, a privilege ATK would get if they finish in the top two, would be the key to survival. So, he dropped hints about giving the bench a run out.
With goalie Debjit Majumder, central midfielder Borja Fernandez and central defenders Henrique Sereno and Arnab Mondal on three bookings, meaning another yellow card would rule them out of the first leg of the semi-final, a new-look ATK could take on a team it has beaten only once in five ISL games. And the player who scored a hattrick when that happened last November, Iain Hume, too may start on the bench with Helder Postiga and Sameehg Doutie.
It could help Habas end on a high, in a city that had made him one of its own.