ATK and Mohun Bagan: The champions’ tango

The winners of I-League and ISL have a lot in common. When they merge as a single entity next season, they will be the team to beat.
Mohun Bagan player Papa Babacar Diawara celebrates.(Samir Jana / Hindustan Times)
Mohun Bagan player Papa Babacar Diawara celebrates.(Samir Jana / Hindustan Times)
Updated on Apr 25, 2020 03:49 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Kolkata | ByDhiman Sarkar

Around the time Mohun Bagan were looking for a coach, ATK’s assistant Sanjoy Sen somewhat hesitantly pitched for a striker after watching a video clip. “Videos can be dodgy business. At Mohun Bagan (in 2015-16), we saw clips of Brazilian centre-back Gustavo (Conceicao) and liked him. But he struggled from the time he landed in Kolkata,” says Sen. A poor goals-for-chances ratio had hurt ATK in the 2018-19 edition of the Indian Super League (ISL) so Sen went with his gut-feel. “The player finished moves well and showed bursts of speed that left defenders trailing. Also, I thought adjusting to the weather wouldn’t be a problem,” says Sen.

That is how Fiji’s Roy Krishna came to be discussed by ATK’s management. “We had been in touch with Roy immediately post season five. Not only was he a top striker but also had an Indian connection which we thought would be a great marketing tool for us,” says ATK CEO Raghu Iyer.

ATK celebrate title win. (ISL)
ATK celebrate title win. (ISL)

As the highest scorer in the 2018-19 A-League (Australia’s top tier), Krishna, 32, wasn’t coming cheap -- along with FC Goa’s Ferran Corominas and Kerala Blasters’ Bartholomew Ogbeche he was reportedly in the salary bracket of 3.5-4 crore -- but ATK were willing to gamble.

Krishna ended ISL6 with 15 goals. No one scored more and only Ogbeche and Chennaiyin FC’s Nerijus Valskis netted as many. Before the semi-finals, ATK placed cut-outs of their stars in different parts of Kolkata. Ubiquitous among them was Krishna.

Roy Krishna in action. (ISL)
Roy Krishna in action. (ISL)

“Once we had him, we got in touch with David (Williams) as both he and Roy had a terrific partnership,” says Iyer. Williams and Krishna, teammates at A-League club Wellington Phoenix, scored 22 of ATK’s 39 goals.

“I think the difference between them and us is that they converted their chances better. Because more often than not they chose to hit on the break, it helped that they had players like Krishna and Williams,” says Sunil Chhetri whose Bengaluru FC lost to ATK in the semi-finals.

“Both will be with us next season,” says Iyer. That will also be the first when ATK and Mohun Bagan will be in lockstep.

ATK beat Chennaiyin FC 3-1 in the final of ISL6 on March 14. Four days earlier, Mohun Bagan defeated Aizawl FC 1-0 to reach an unassailable 39 points with four rounds to spare in the I-League. With over 20 games remaining, the I-League was frozen because of Covid-19 and Mohun Bagan were adjudged champions on April 18.

“Mohun Bagan were the most consistent team this time, a step above” says Dave Robertson, Real Kashmir FC’s Scottish coach.

Like ATK found Krishna, Mohun Bagan’s search for a coach ended in them finding a winner in Spaniard Jose Antonio (Kibu) Vicuna. It wasn’t the only similarity between teams who completed the journey from being mid-table monarchs in 2018-19 to champions.

Early coach selection

By May 2019, ATK and Mohun Bagan had firmed up their head coach. ATK announced the return of Antonio Lopez Habas as coach on May 2. Eight days later, Vicuna was named by Mohun Bagan. The ISL began on October 20 and I-League on November 30.

“Habas’ heart was always with ATK and he and the club felt that there was unfinished business especially after his exit post season 2... We hadn’t approached him earlier because of (the partnership with) ATM (Atletico Madrid). But post our separation with ATM, Habas and we wanted to get back together. We did experiment with the English coaches. Unfortunately it wasn’t very successful,” says Iyer.

The Spaniard Habas, 62, will be ATK-Mohun Bagan coach, team owner Sanjiv Goenka has announced. Habas guided ATK to the first ISL title and to the semi-finals next term. He was replaced by Jose Molina when ATK won again in 2016. In between, ATK had appointed Teddy Sheringham in 2017-18 -- a season where they had to change coaches thrice -- and Steve Coppell in 2018-19. ATK finished ninth in 2017-18 and sixth next term.

Antonio Habas. (ISL)
Antonio Habas. (ISL)

“While interviewing Kibu what we liked was the absolute lack of bombast. He asked what our target was. I-League, we said. He then asked for time and the only promise he made was to try and get Mohun Bagan to play good football,” says Debasish Dutta, Mohun Bagan’s finance secretary.

Vicuna was Mohun Bagan’s first foreign coach since Karim Bencharifa left after 18 months in charge in April 2014. Their only I-League till now had come under Sen in 2014-15.

Mohun Bagan also broke from the norm of choosing imports near the I-League by signing most foreign players by July. Barring Trinidad and Tobago international Daniel Cyrus, who joined in August, and Papa Baba Diawara who was shopped in January, all the foreigners were part of the pre-season camp in Goa.

“Getting the foreign players early increased our budget but we realised it was the only way to get the squad ready for the I-League,” says Dutta.

All of Mohun Bagan’s imports barring Diawara played in the Calcutta League, the Durand Cup and an invitational tournament in Bangladesh. Mohun Bagan won neither and had one point after their first two I-League games but the foundation had been laid for a 14-game unbeaten run.

“Those competitions helped us create a style and by the time the I-League came we had confidence in our style,” says Vicuna who has joined Kerala Blasters as coach for 2020-21.

Making their own stars

Joseba Beitia, Fran Gonzalez, Fran Morante, Diawara and Cyrus ended the I-League as stars but were not known in India when they joined Mohun Bagan. Diawara, formerly with Sevilla, scored in each of his last nine games. He scored 10 goals in all. “Their budget was higher and it showed in the quality of their foreigners,” says Robertson.

“It was a conscious decision to not sign stars. Not getting Sony Norde back was one of the most important decisions we took last term,” says Dutta. Haiti international Norde had acquired a big following in four seasons with Mohun Bagan but left in January 2018 after a knee injury.

ATK retained Edu Garcia. (ISL)
ATK retained Edu Garcia. (ISL)

ATK retained playmaker Edu Garcia and central defender John Johnson but like Mohun Bagan went for young foreigners. “Carl McHugh was 26. He was a captain of Motherwell (in Scottish Premiership). With my limited idea of footballing fundamentals I realised he could play in multiple positions,” says Sen.

Young Indians shine

Crucial to ATK’s run in ISL6 were the shifts Prabir Das, 26, and Michael Soosairaj, 25, put in as wingbacks. Das had missed almost a year following a pre-season knee injury in 2018.

“Prabir would be among the top three Indians in ISL6. I am really looking forward to seeing him in the national camp. I have seen him for three-four years; he was always hard working but this year he was quality, man. The crosses were quality,” says Chhetri.

Young Sumit Rathi as centre-back too was a revelation, his performance in his breakthrough year enough for India coach Igor Stimac to want to see more.

File image of Prabir Das. (ISL)
File image of Prabir Das. (ISL)

“Sumit used to be called in for training with the senior team and impressed Habas with skill and attitude,” says Iyer.

Having joined ATK as an under-18 team player Rathi, 18, played 14 games in many of which India central defender Anas Edathodika started on the bench. “Defensively they were very solid and Sumit contributed to that,” says Chhetri.

At Mohun Bagan the equivalents were Kerala Blasters loanee Nongdamba Naorem, 20, Sheikh Sahil, 19 and Shubha Ghosh, 19. Ghosh’s 87th minute goal in a tight away game to Punjab FC fetched Mohun Bagan a crucial point. And Naorem was involved in the goal that fetched Mohun Bagan the title.

“The credit for getting these young players ready goes entirely to Kibu,” says Dutta.

No major injuries

Barring Pronay Halder’s and Williams’ hamstring worries, ATK had no muscle injury, says Sen. “Alvaro (Ros Bernal), our physical trainer did a good job. Also, the players looked to be enjoying training,” says Sen.

At Mohun Bagan, trainer Paulis Ragasukas ensured the players stayed mostly injury-free. “We were prepared in every aspect. We trained properly and if we did not have injuries, it is due to the work of the staff,” says Vicuna.

Smells of team spirit

“In football, there are dynamics. When you are in a good mood and confident, you will make a situation better than your opponents,” says Vicuna.

It was true for ATK and Mohun Bagan. The start was wobbly for both but they relied on the collective to get out of difficult situations.

Mohun Bagan. (ISL)
Mohun Bagan. (ISL)

After Agus Garcia, the former Mallorca defender, left for home, Krishna dedicated his hattrick against Odisha FC to him. “He is going through some family issue back in home… Hopefully, this win will give him some motivation and make him stronger,” said Krishna.

ATK-Mohun Bagan are likely to retain most of their players, sources at both clubs said. From Mohun Bagan, Gonzalez, on a two-year deal, Ghosh, Sahil and Beitia, their attacking heartbeat, are likely to join the new team. Unless forced into change by the pandemic, ATK-Mohun Bagan will come into effect on June 1 and get ready for ISL6.

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